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File photo by Anna Moneymaker of The New York Times/Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, talks with reporters on his way to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on Aug. 1. With most Republicans rushing to defend President Trump against impeachment push, a "deeply troubled" Romney stands apart.

It's hard to believe that barely three weeks have passed since Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a mysterious subpoena to the acting director of national intelligence, demanding that he produce a whistleblower complaint filed by someone in the intelligence community.

Since that subpoena was issued, the impeachment of Donald Trump has gone from implausibility to near certainty; I at least find it hard to see how the House can fail to impeach given what we already know about Trump's actions. Conviction in the Senate remains a long shot, but not as long as it once seemed.

And the whole tenor of our national conversation has changed. It looks to me as if we're witnessing the rapid collapse of a powerful faction in U.S. public life.

I'm not talking about the right-wing extremists who dominate the Republican Party. Sorry, but they're not going anywhere. Most of Trump's base is sticking with him, while the list of prominent Republican politicians willing to call out Trump's malfeasance in clear language consists so far of Mitt Romney and, well, Mitt Romney.

No, I'm talking about fanatical centrists, who aren't a large slice of the electorate, but have played an outsize role in elite opinion and media coverage. These are people who may have been willing to concede that Trump was a bad guy, but otherwise maintained that our two major parties were basically equivalent: Each party had its extremists, but each also had its moderates, and everything would be fine if these moderates could work together.

Who am I talking about? Well, among other people, Joe Biden, who has repeatedly insisted that Trump is an aberration, not representative of the Republican Party as a whole.

Some of us have been pushing back against that worldview for many years, arguing that today's Republican Party is a radical force increasingly opposed to democracy. In 2012, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein declared that the central problem of U.S. politics was a GOP that was not just extreme but "dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

For a long time, however, making that case — pointing out that Republicans were sounding ever more authoritarian and violating more and more democratic norms — got you dismissed as shrill if not deranged. Even Trump's rise, and the obvious parallels between Trumpism and the authoritarian movements that have gutted democracy in places like Hungary and Poland, barely dented centrist complacency.

But my sense, although it's impossible to quantify, is that the events of the past several weeks have finally broken through the wall of centrist denial.

At this point, things that previously were merely obvious have become undeniable. Yes, Trump has invited foreign powers to intervene in U.S. politics on his behalf; he's even done it on camera. And yes, he has claimed that his domestic political opponents are committing treason by exercising their constitutional rights of oversight.

Politicians who believed in American values would denounce this behavior, even if it came from their own leader. Republicans have been silent at best, and many are expressing approval. So it's now crystal clear that the GOP is not a normal political party, but rather, an authoritarian regime in waiting.

And I think — I hope — that those who have spent years denying this reality are finally coming around.

It's important to understand that the GOP hasn't suddenly changed, that Trump hasn't somehow managed to corrupt a party that was basically OK until he came along. Anyone startled by Republican embrace of wild conspiracy theories about the deep state must have slept through the Clinton years, and wasn't paying attention when most of the GOP decided that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by a vast global scientific cabal.

No, Trump isn't an aberration. He's unusually blatant and gaudily corrupt, but at a basic level he's the culmination of where his party has been going for decades. And U.S. political life won't begin to recover until centrists face up to that uncomfortable reality.

The New York Times

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