Radical Republicans Used to Fight for Voting Rights

The Republican Party’s official assault on the legitimacy of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is doomed to failure, but in one way the attempt has been clarifying: It has redefined the meaning of the term “Radical Republican,” in the process destroying the reputation of an organized political institution once known as the Party of Lincoln.

The term has its roots before the Civil War and lasted through the immediate postwar period. By calling themselves “Radical Republicans,” members of the party intended to distinguish themselves from the party’s loose coalition of former Whigs, industrialists, moderates and disaffected Democrats. Despite being a minority within the post-Civil War GOP majority, the radical caucus was vocal and influential in passing the 14th Amendment and pushing for Black political participation.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson adopted a policy of leniency with the defeated Confederacy. He pardoned former rebels and allowed Southern states to impose the so-called Black Codes, which kept former slaves second-class citizens.

In response, the radicals pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed Black people the same rights of property and person as White citizens and eventually passed over Johnson’s veto. Eventually the radicals succeeded in passing the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which helped Blacks in the South briefly achieve political power, banned “leading” rebels from public office and broke up the former Confederacy into five Northern-controlled zones.

Unfortunately, the Radical Republicans would see most of their work come undone with the “corrupt bargain” of 1877, which settled the contested 1876 election: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes became president in exchange for federal forces leaving Southern states, ending Reconstruction (and Black power in the South).

For today’s Radical Republicans, voting rights — for citizens of any race — are not a priority. Quite the opposite. Last month, when Texas went to the Supreme Court to invalidate the votes in four states carried by Biden, 17 other states filed amicus briefs in support of the litigation, and 106 House Republicans supported the effort. Notably, not one Republican senator joined that action. Within days, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly rejected the case — as have 60-some other courts with similar lawsuits.

A rational response to such overwhelming losses in the courts would be to face the reality that President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread fraud have no merit. Instead, the challenges have continued, becoming even more bold and irrational. The most recent, brought by Representative Louis Gohmert of Texas and rejected this week, was a suit against Vice President Mike Pence in his role as president of the Senate, directing him to unilaterally set aside the electoral slates of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The number of House Republicans preparing to challenge the Biden victory is now reportedly up to 140 — two-thirds of the new House GOP conference. Whereas no senators signed onto the Supreme Court argument, more than a dozen are on board with the congressional challenge. Count that as a victory for a metastasizing Trumpism.

And what is Trumpism, exactly? It is not about being tough on immigration or hostile to free trade. It is a disregard for the truth and a rejection of facts in favor of validating the preferred “reality” of the party’s leader. It is, ultimately, undermining the rule of law. Again, five dozen courts — with Democratic and Republican judges, some appointed by Trump and some not — found no evidence to support any claims of voter fraud. No matter. Senator Ted Cruz cites “unprecedented allegations” as being reason enough to delay ratifying Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Monday’s news conference by Gabriel Sterling of the Georgia secretary of state’s office was extraordinary in its point-by-point refutation of Trump’s claims about how the state conducted its election. Election officials in the other “contested” states should do the same — if only to fully expose the president’s falsehoods and fables.

Alas, this won’t have much of an impact on the president’s core supporters. Instead, elected Republican officials have opted to bond with this president out of fear of offending those same supporters or for their own presidential ambitions. Will the thousands of Trump supporters scheduled to descend on Washington Wednesday just quietly shrug their shoulders and leave when their misguided hopes of Trump’s “re-election” are dashed?

Radical Republicans got the name for standing up for voting rights. Now the term refers to the expanding anti-democratic wing of the party. The concerted effort to overturn Biden’s victory is not merely a rhetorical attempt to disregard the ballots of 81 million Americans. It is also an assault on the U.S. system of democratic governance — and, not incidentally, a repudiation of one of the Republican Party’s proudest legacies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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