In the summer of 1950, outraged by Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist inquisition, Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican senator from Maine, stood to warn her party that its own behavior was threatening the integrity of the American republic. "I don't want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear," she said. "I doubt if the Republican Party could — simply because I don't believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely, we Republicans aren't that desperate for victory."
Senator Smith surely knew her "Declaration of Conscience" would not carry the day. Her appeal to the better angels of her party was not made in the expectation of an immediate change; sometimes the point is just to get people to look up. In the end, four more years passed before the bulk of the Republican Party looked up and turned on Senator McCarthy — four years of public show trials and thought policing that pushed the country so hard to the right that the effects lasted decades. The problem with politicians who abuse power isn't that they don't get results. It's that the results come at a high cost to the Republic — and to the reputations of those who lack the courage or wisdom to resist.
The Republican Party is again confronting a crisis of conscience, one that has been gathering force ever since Donald Trump captured the party's nomination in 2016. Afraid of his political influence, and delighted with his largely conservative agenda, party leaders have compromised again and again, swallowing their criticisms and tacitly if not openly endorsing presidential behavior they would have excoriated in a Democrat. Compromise by compromise, Donald Trump has hammered away at what Republicans once saw as foundational virtues: decency, honesty, responsibility. He has asked them to substitute loyalty to him for their patriotism itself.
Mr. Trump privately pressed Ukraine to serve his political interests by investigating a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as by looking into a long-debunked conspiracy theory about Democratic National Committee emails that were stolen by the Russians. Mr. Trump publicly made a similar request of China. His chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said publicly on Thursday that the administration threatened to withhold military aid from Ukraine if it did not help "find" the D.N.C. servers.
These attempts to enlist foreign interference in American electoral democracy are an assault not only on our system of government but also on the integrity of the Republican Party. Republicans need to emulate the moral clarity of Margaret Chase Smith and recognize that they have a particular responsibility to condemn the president's behavior and to reject his tactics.
Some have already done so. On Friday, John Kasich, the former Ohio governor, said that Mr. Mulvaney's comments convinced him that the impeachment inquiry should move forward. Representative Justin Amash of Michigan had already called for impeachment, though he felt it necessary to leave the party as a consequence.
There was a time when Republicans like Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that soliciting foreign election assistance would be improper. But most congressional Republicans have taken to avoiding such questions as the evidence against Mr. Trump has piled up. Mr. Trump still feels so well-protected by his party that he has just named his own golf resort as the site for the next Group of 7 summit in 2020, a brazen act of self-dealing.
Yet Republicans will not be able to postpone a reckoning with Trumpism for much longer. The investigation by House Democrats appears likely to result in a vote for impeachment, despite efforts by the White House to obstruct the inquiry. That will force Senate Republicans to choose. Will they commit themselves and their party wholly to Mr. Trump, embracing even his most anti-democratic actions, or will they take the first step toward separating themselves from him and restoring confidence in the rule of law?
Thus far in office, Mr. Trump has acted against the national interest by maintaining his financial interests in his company and using the presidential podium to promote it; obstructed legitimate investigations into his conduct by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and Congress; attacked the free press; given encouragement to white nationalists; established a de facto religious test for immigrants; undermined foreign alliances and emboldened American rivals; demanded personal loyalty from subordinates sworn to do their duty to the Constitution; and sent his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, around the world to conduct what could most charitably be described as shadow foreign policy with Mr. Trump's personal benefit as its lodestar.
Some Republicans have clearly believed that they could control the president by staying close to him and talking him out of his worst ideas. Ask Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — who has spent the last two years prostrating himself before Mr. Trump in the hope of achieving his political goals, including protecting the Kurds — how that worked out. Mr. Graham isn't alone, of course; there is a long list of politicians who have debased themselves to please Mr. Trump, only to be abandoned by him like a sack of rotten fruit in the end. That's the way of all autocrats; they eventually turn on everyone save perhaps their own relatives, because no one can live up to their demands for fealty.
The Constitution's framers envisioned America's political leaders as bound by a devotion to country above all else. That's why all elected officials take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. By protecting Donald Trump at all costs from all consequences, the Republicans risk violating that sacred oath.
Senator Smith's question once again hangs over the Republican Party: Surely they are not so desperate for short-term victory as to tolerate this behavior? We'll soon find out.