It's generally accepted in America that democracy is an absolute good; that, like tolerance, there can never be too much of it.
But absolutism never survives the test of rational thought.
Tolerance goes too far when it tolerates intolerance. And democracy founders when people are convinced to embrace something fundamentally undemocratic.
That is what the Republican Party appears to be doing at the moment by embracing Donald Trump, who by his own words, would behave undemocratically as a president.
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For example, he says he would order the U.S. military to torture captives, and go beyond waterboarding when dealing with enemies of the state.
He says he would bar a quarter of the world's population from entering the U.S. solely on the grounds of religion.
His ban might even apply to Muslims who are already American residents returning from travels abroad; it is impossible to know because Trump speaks in such bizarre, sweeping terms.
And, of course, he would deport 12 million undocumented, mostly Hispanic, workers, throwing the American economy into chaos — he would throw out even those whose children were born in the U.S.A.
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So Republican intellectuals are now talking about making a courageous choice, albeit one with potentially calamitous consequences: That would be thwarting, if necessary, the will of millions of the party's voters, many of whom comprise its bedrock base.
Columnist George F. Will, whose conservative credentials are beyond question, has warned that Trump is not just a buffoon ("Is there a disagreeable human trait he does not have?" Will asks) but an "avatar of unfettered government and executive authoritarianism."
Michael Gerson goes even further. Trump, he says, undermines American security and must be denied the Republican nomination, even if he arrives at the party's convention in Cleveland with the most delegates.
'Disqualifying in a president'
Gerson, based in Washington, is a member of America's evangelical intelligentsia, a man whose conservatism is infused with Christian values — the compassionate sort, rather than the ferocious nativism embraced by the more fundamentalist evangelical cohort.
As a speechwriter and adviser to George W. Bush, Gerson was in the Oval Office the day after the 9/11 attacks, as the president struggled with what to tell an enraged, volatile American public.
"At that moment," Gerson told me recently, "we had no idea how Americans would react to Muslims in U.S. To Muslim-Americans.
"And George Bush set out as a leader to say we're an inclusive, tolerant country… we don't blame a religion for what happened. He went to a mosque within days of the attacks.
"But imagine," Gerson went on, "if George Bush had said, 'Yeah, I'm going to whip up resentment of Islam for my own political purposes? He could have done it in a minute."
That, says Gerson, is what Trump has done, manipulating public fear by proposing his blanket ban on Muslims following the mass shootings by Islamic extremists in Paris and in California.
"When Donald Trump does this as a populist tool … he is directly undermining the national interest of the United States for political reasons," says Gerson. "That itself is disqualifying in a president."
'A hot rock'
Gerson is among a growing group of Republican thinkers these days who feel the party must deny Trump the nomination, vox populi be damned.
"The U.S. government does not have an absolute populist democracy," he argues, "and the parties are not run as absolute populist democracies.
"There's some deliberative role in the party structure that says, is this best for the party? Is this best for the country?"
That's a more refined version of what Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, urged: that the party drop Trump "like a hot rock," even if he wins the primary season.
The calculations and rules for the Republican convention in July are bewildering, but there are options for keeping Trump from the nomination even if he arrives in Cleveland with the most delegates.
Most of these delegates are only obliged to vote for him on the first ballot.
The trouble is, the man now running second, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, is, in some ways, more extreme than Trump, though perhaps somewhat more predictable.
So "moderate" Republicans — and they do still exist, even if they've been pushed into the margins by this wave of bare-fanged populism — need to find someone capable of moving a mass of delegates.
There is no such candidate now in the race. House Speaker Paul Ryan, if he could be persuaded to stand, is a possibility.
There is even the possibility the party brass will orchestrate a rewriting of the rules at the convention to exclude Trump, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
That, of course, would mean the party leadership overriding the millions of voters supporting Trump, not to mention ignoring all the anger feeding the party revolt against the Republican leadership itself.
As Ornstein puts it: "That would mean blood on the streets, and on the convention floor."
Be it resolved
In Texas last week, a Republican local president, Buffie Ingersoll, showed me a resolution her precinct had passed following Trump's big Super Tuesday victory. Several other precincts passed identical measures.
It cites McConnell's "hot rock" comment, and goes on: "Be it resolved that Republican voters reject the decision of the United States Senate Majority Leader to abort the will of the people," and condemns any effort to "silence voters" at the convention.
The party had better pay attention, says Ingersoll, "or else."
And yet, that is exactly what people like Gerson, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist Kathleen Parker are urging, if necessary. With all the attendant consequences.
"I can easily see vast numbers of people descending on Washington," Parker told me. "I can see people rioting. I think it's going to be a historical moment when that happens. And I don't think it's going to be pretty."
Nonetheless, she says, "I agree with Michael Gerson. I think he [Trump] has to be stopped."
It didn't have to come to this. The party could probably have found a sensible, winning champion had it not remained deaf to grassroots anger and dismissed Trump as a joke for as long as it did.
But if voters must be thwarted, it's probably good that it will be conservatives themselves doing the thwarting. They are, after all, the ones who have complained most loudly about Barack Obama and liberal judges corrupting democracy.
The Democrats need only stand back and watch.