Published January 4, 2021
“So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, ” Donald Trump told Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, during an astonishing hour-long conversation on Saturday. It was the latest gambit in the president’s effort to overturn the free and fair election in that state, which President-elect Joe Biden won by 11,799 votes.
The Washington Post, which obtained a recording of the conversation, described it this way: “Trump alternately berated Raffensperger, tried to flatter him, begged him to act and threatened him with vague criminal consequences if the secretary of state refused to pursue his false claims, at one point warning that Raffensperger was taking ‘a big risk.’” (To his great credit, Raffensperger didn’t break or bend.) Legal scholars told the Post that what the president did was a “flagrant abuse of power and a potential criminal act.” The president sounded like a mob boss.
This was the latest link in a nine-week chain of malicious conspiracy theories and outright lies, of misinformation and disinformation, that began almost immediately after the president was defeated by Biden on November 3. Trump led the effort, but much of his party has backed him, as it did throughout his first campaign and during his presidency, no matter what he did—from soliciting Russian interference in the 2016 election and obstructing justice to pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on his opponent and trying to undermine a lawful and legitimate election. In a fittingly corrupt capstone, later this week a majority of Republicans in the House and at least 10 Republicans in the Senate will likely join an effort to subvert democracy by opposing the certification of Biden’s election, a scheme Vice President Mike Pence has voiced support for.
The Trump presidency, especially its denouement, ranks among the most debasing eras in the history of American politics. And the debasement wasn’t confined to just the Trump administration.
Day after day, corrupt act after corrupt act, leaders of the Republican Party, with a few morally conscientious exceptions, were in lockstep. The large majority of Republicans indulged the president, supported him, and defended him; those who knew better lied for him, they made excuses for him, and they cowered before him. They overlooked his crimes and his cruelty. Elected representatives quivered at the thought that he might tweet critically of them. In one of the most craven political performances in generations, Senator Ted Cruz, who in 2016 saw Trump mock his wife and link his father to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, volunteered to represent one of the crazed lawsuits advancing the president’s claims before the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit.)
Trump went places they never thought he would, and they followed right along. Some did so out of fear; others did so out of vaulting ambition. Some did so reluctantly; others did so enthusiastically. But they never broke with him.
It is surely significant and contemptible that this week, as in the weeks before it, we’re likely to see a majority of Republicans in the House and nearly a quarter of the Republicans in the Senate try to subvert democracy in a way no one has ever quite done before in the United States. But this also needs to be said: We have at long last found an ethical line that at least some Republicans in Congress won’t cross in order to stay in the good graces of Donald Trump. Finally, Mitt Romney won’t be standing alone. Others are joining him, and a few are distinguishing themselves by a plainspoken commitment to democracy over partisan advantage.
Speaking out at this very late hour hardly qualifies these Republicans, other than Romney, as profiles in courage. On the basis of the track record of Republicans in elected office over the past four years, I have little doubt that if Trump had beaten Biden, almost none would have stood up to him, regardless of his transgressions. But in less than 20 days, Trump will be an ex-president, and sedition is something that makes most of even today’s Republicans think twice. Trump’s defeat has created space for a majority of Senate Republicans to finally break free of him.
Many will be tempted to refuse to welcome aboard or forgive those whom they consider “Vichy Republicans,” collaborators of Trump, because they didn’t confront him when it most mattered. Instead, they often cheered him on. Critics of Republicans who stood with Trump over the past four years will rightly point out that the nihilistic attacks on our democratic institutions we’re now witnessing were very nearly inevitable, given Trump’s sociopathic qualities. The conduct of many Republicans during the Trump era amounted to willful blindness.
I understand the criticisms and share many of them. Indeed, I was sharply critical of Republicans as far back as a decade ago for not standing up to Trump, in that case because he was peddling the lunatic conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and since 2015, I have called them out time and time again.
I don’t think that a single one of my criticisms of Republicans was unwarranted—in fact, I would say events have validated them—nor do I think that the past five years should disappear down a memory hole. But here’s what I also believe: The break between a majority of House Republicans and senators such as Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Ron Johnson on the one hand and Romney, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey, and most of their Republican colleagues on the other is not the last act of the Trump era but the opening act of the post-Trump era. Many more acts will follow.
But if Republicans who were far too supportive and far too afraid of Trump before he lost to Biden are now (very belatedly) willing to work to drain the poison he and they unleashed, then they should be pulled into the effort rather than shunned. How and with whom that can be done depends on facts and circumstances, of course. Some were more complicit than others. And we shouldn’t be naive in what we can expect. But the disposition, the mindset, should not be toward exacting revenge. What is needed in the Republican party is a countermovement, a fundamentally different approach, to the brutal politics of the Trump era.
It says something about the morally emaciated state of the Republican Party that insisting that Joe Biden is a legitimate president and that it’s wrong to support a de facto coup is a controversial proposition. But that is where we are. And if, as Trump’s power wanes and his psychological and emotional state continues to unravel, more and more Republicans are willing to distance their party from the wreckage and the ruin he has brought—from his assault on reality and his pathological lies, his stoking of resentments and anger, his anti-intellectualism and conspiracy-mongering—that is all to the good. This remains true even if we know, and even if they know, that they did not act honorably. These individuals don’t deserve to be lionized—far from it—and I’m all in favor of accountability. But the main priority right now is to heal our land and to heal our politics.
Last week I referenced Lord Charnwood, the author of the marvelous 1917 biography Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps it’s worth drinking from that well one more time.
“This most unrelenting enemy to the project of the Confederacy was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen of the South,” Lord Charnwood wrote of Lincoln. He added, “For perhaps not many conquerors, and certainly few successful statesmen, have escaped the tendency of power to harden or at least to narrow their human sympathies; but in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength.”
We have been through a national trauma over the past half decade, though it pales compared with what America faced in the Civil War. But now, as then, we could use a little less malice and a little more charity, a little more tender compassion, all the way around. I very much include myself among those whose sensibilities should be shaped more than they are by the example of Lincoln.
You may despair because of what the Republican Party stood for during the Trump era. In that case, you should hope that it becomes something very different, and something much better, in the years ahead. Getting the GOP to where it needs to be is going to take principled, visionary, and ethical leaders. But it’s also going to take some tainted figures coming along for the ride, assuming they are willing to lend a hand.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.