Pro-Donald Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol that day, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Trump supporters had gathered to protest the ratification of Joe Biden's Electoral College victory.
CNN  — 

America’s running political conversation defaults to the sitting president. Today, Joe Biden’s legislative struggles, pandemic management and weak approval rating drown out most everything else.

But in 2021, the performance of his partisan adversaries mattered at least as much to the nation’s future. And in Washington and state capitals alike, Republicans have compiled a record of dishonesty and aggression that threatens American democracy itself.

The January 6 insurrection, incited by then-President Donald Trump to overturn his election defeat, offered them a different path. Deadly violence that endangered their own lives gave Republican lawmakers the strongest possible justification for separating themselves from Trump’s disfiguring pathologies.

For a moment, they did. Shaken congressional leaders condemned him and returned to the vandalized capital to affirm Biden’s victory.

The moment passed.

Those same Republican leaders later scuttled a proposed bipartisan investigation. GOP legislators in battleground states curbed voting procedures and changed election administration to help future losers succeed where Trump had failed in thwarting the popular will.

“Until recently, when I got up in the morning it didn’t occur to me that American democracy might be in the balance,” observed Richard Haass, a high-ranking national security aide to two Republican administrations who has quit the GOP. “It’s no longer a given. I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say this is the greatest crisis we’ve faced since the 19th century.”

Narrowly, the crisis stems from Trump’s 2016 rise on false promises to the minority of voters most aggrieved by the cultural and economic changes reshaping 21st-century America. But its roots extend back to the decades-old Republican strategy of harvesting support from conservative White opponents of the 1960s civil rights revolution.

Those voters – disproportionately Southern, less educated, rural, evangelical – now represent the white-hot core of the Trump-era GOP.

“When you think about the DNA of the current Republican Party being built around racial resentment, it’s only one small step,” said Robert P. Jones, an opinion analyst who’s the CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute. “The very idea that some citizens ought to have a privileged place in the eyes of the law is, at its heart, anti-democratic.”

Unlike earlier Republican campaigns, Trump barely masked his race-based appeals. He consistently stoked anxiety over lost power and primacy among the shrinking ranks of White conservative Christians.

“Having alienated college-educated suburban voters, many consequential Republicans decided their best bet is to keep their contracting coalition in a state of constant agitation and fear, combatants in a never-ending culture war,” Peter Wehner, a former aide to President George W. Bush, wrote earlier this year. “Right now, the Republican Party is a grave threat to American democracy.”

Trump has long expressed admiration for authoritarian strongmen. Fox News star Tucker Carlson in August staged his program in Hungary, the east European nation scholars call an exemplar of eroding democracy.

“There are two key metrics: how do they deal with violence, and do they accept election results,” said Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of the book “How Democracies Die.” On both counts, Republicans have crept toward authoritarianism.

Trump and elected allies turned to praising the January 6 mob and minimizing its lawless violence; some brandish guns on social media or in campaign ads. One congressman circulated a photoshopped anime video that appeared to depict the murder of a Democratic colleague. (He later said he doesn’t “espouse violence or harm towards any member of Congress” and that the video “symbolizes the battle for the soul of America.”)

In a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, 30% of Republicans agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” In a differently worded American Enterprise Institute poll question last January, 60% of White evangelical Christians agreed that “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

Egged on by Trump, leading Republicans have made affirming or acquiescing in his big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him a threshold qualification. In the 2022 GOP primary race for Georgia governor, ex-Sen. David Perdue distinguishes himself from incumbent Brian Kemp by saying he would not have certified Biden’s 2020 Georgia win.

Deteriorating political conditions for Democrats have positioned Republicans to win control of Congress next year without extra help. But having lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, they’re not taking chances.

A cadre of anti-Trump Republicans see glimpses of hope in their effort to change the party from within. Barbara Comstock, a former House member and congressional staffer, cites the Virginia gubernatorial victory in November of private-equity executive Glenn Youngkin, who accepted Trump’s endorsement but eschewed his raw tactics.

“Has it been a discouraging year? Yes,” Comstock allowed. “But I do feel new leaders will step up.”

“It’s important to wrench the party back to its senses,” added Kori Schake, a former Bush aide who directs foreign policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “I do think it’s possible. I’m still a Republican, standing squarely behind Liz Cheney.”

Invoking the Wyoming Republican congresswoman, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, only underscores the enormousness of the challenge. House Republicans ousted her as conference chair after she emphatically rejected Trump’s election lies. She and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois have become lone voices seeking to hold Trump and insurrectionist allies accountable and affirm America’s 245-year-old democratic experiment.

“How we address January 6 is the moral test of our generation,” Cheney declared recently. In 2021, her party failed it.