The following Trump from Andy Smarick has left me thinking.
I have written on more than one occasion ( here, here, and here) about how hard it has been for Republican politicians to really say anything critical in public about President Trump. In the recent past, it wasn’t unusual for Republican lawmakers in Congress to criticize a President from their own party. That has rarely happened during the Trump years and when it has, it was usually when those politicians knew they were on their way out. Why is this the case?
Writing in 2016, Journalist Dick Pohlman described the story of one Congressman who made a slight criticism against the then President-elect and how Trump’s followers went after him:
Earlier this month, Texas congressman Bill Flores told a conservative conference that some of Trump’s proposals “are not going to line up very well with our conservative policies,” and even though he was equally conciliatory (“Let’s work on the things we know where we’re together”), his initial words were enough to unleash Trump’s flying monkeys.
A swift attack from Breitbart was amplified on the radio by Sean Hannity; in turn, Hannity was amplified by the tweet-stormers, who told Flores stuff like, “we will burn your career down” and “you can go hang yourself!!” A Trumpthink blogger also weighed in by posting Flores’ office number, which prompted a rash of calls from people who threatened Flores’ physical safety.
A President Bush or Reagan might say something in private but otherwise wouldn’t go after the “wayward” politician. President Trump, on the other hand, is nothing more than a gangster. Whenever one pol says anything even lightly critical he is able to get people to go after these politicians that in many cases drives them from office.
Over the past couple of months, there have been numerous reports and lists detailing GOP congressional leaders who have endorsed Vice President Biden and it’s relatively easy to see what they all have in common: they are no longer in Congress. They are far away from Trump’s tweets and his minions.
Unlike many others, I have some sympathy for Republican leaders who are nervous about speaking up. They worked hard to get to Washington and they don’t want to risk their office for the thankless task of publicly rebuking the president. Especially when they know the backlash it will entail.
Yet, just because the challenge is great, just because you might lose everything you worked hard for and just because you don’t want to suffer the fate of reprisal from your own party doesn’t mean you get a free pass. Representatives and Senators pledge to uphold the constitution, not the President. That means being able to keep those vows even if you end up all alone, because that’s why you came to Washington in the first place.
In fact, it was important for Republican lawmakers to speak up in the name of Democracy. Pohlman wrote in that same 2016 article that the road to autocracy begins when lawmakers are no longer able to speak their mind for fear of reprisal. If Trump were a more competent leader, he could have started by cowing the lawmakers in the GOP and then moved on to other parts of society, the way other strongmen have done. The silence of the lawmakers might have spared them from reprisals, but it could have come at the cost of democracy. It looks like we don’t have to worry about Trump becoming some kind of North American caudillo. But the fact that most Republicans chose to keep silent as the President damaged our democracy (and could have done far worse) is infuriating.
As Charlie Sykes notes in his Sunday op-ed, Republican Senators who have suddenly found their voice only when it looks like President Trump will lose and take the Senate down with him are doing too little too late. They had numerous opportunities to get off the Trump train, but they chose not to. Many probably hoped that as long as they kept their heads down and tried to survive until after the election, things would be okay. They didn’t think Trump would threaten their hold on the upper chamber until it was too late.
The thing is, no one was expecting these senators to join “the resistance” and support Joe Biden. But they could have spoken out from time to time. They could have supported each other when the President lashed out at one of them. Maybe they couldn’t vote to convict the President, but they could have voted to censure him. Had Senate Republicans acted like the institution of the Senate matters they might not all be in the mess they are in.
This is why Ben Sasse’s leaked comments about the President are at once heartening and maddening. Sasse is in many ways an institutionalist of the Senate and knew what was at stake. His outburst is heartening because he is saying what many of us think when it comes to the President. It’s maddening because he said this with less than three weeks to go before election day and after a year of radio silence as he faced a primary challenger. He was the critic in the Senate that we longed for…and then he folded.
There was a time that the Senate was willing to do the hard work of condemning someone of their own party. When Joseph McCarthy, the Republican Senator from Wisconsin threatened our society with his communist witch hunt, it was the Republican members of the Senate that saw him for the menace that he was and did what they could to speak up and stop him. This included Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine who gave her “Declaration of Conscience” speech in 1950 to attack the threat she saw in McCarthy. There was Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont who introduced the resolution to censure McCarthy. Finally, there was Arthur Watkins from Utah who led the special select committee that would investigate McCarthy and bring forth the charge to censure the Wisconsin Senator, ensuring that he would never threaten the republic ever again.
Smith, Flanders, Watkins, and countless other Senators were willing to make their voices heard because they saw a threat to the nation and to the institution of the Senate. President Trump was really no different than Senator McCarthy. Both were demagogues and bullies. Both were threats to the health of our republic. But the Senators of nearly 70 years ago, had far more spine than their modern counterparts.
When a member of Congress takes the oath of office, they swear to defend a piece of paper. The oath states they will defend the constitution. They don’t say they will defend the President or even the people of the United States. Why? It’s because we are a nation that believes in the rule of law. Leaders must follow and enforce that law, they are never a law unto themselves.
Republicans in the House and Senate failed to do that and it is why I tend to believe that those Senators up for re-election this year should lose. That’s a hard thing to say because it means losing some very good members, like Susan Collins of Maine. But by not speaking up, Republican members of Congress violated their oaths and weakened our nation.
They may try to now, and increasingly more in the days leading up to the election, but it’s too late. They weren’t ready when it mattered. Now they have to pay the price.