Ethics & Public Policy Center

The GOP Needs to Hit Rock Bottom

Published in The Bulwark on July 29, 2020


The last thing I want to do is offend my friend David French, who is one of the most admirable voices in America today. Nor, finding myself in the highly unusual position of disagreeing with him, do I want to pile on, since my colleague Charlie Sykes has already penned a response that is characteristically robust. But the question of how conservatives should vote in November—whether to punish the entire Republican party by voting straight-ticket Democrat, or merely vote against Trump—is important and needs further airing.

David argues that conservatives need not vote against Republican Senate candidates in order to send a message:

A rage, fury, and a “burn it all down” mentality is one of the maladies that brought us to the present moment. Repeating that same impulse, but with an entire party in the crosshairs, will only compound our political dysfunction.

This assumes that the reason some plan to evict Republican senators is simply a matter of anger. French uses the word “vengeance.” But voting against a candidate or even a whole party is not nihilism. It’s not “burning it all down.” It’s the legal, constitutional way to express approval or disapproval. The current Republican party has itself chosen to become the arsonist party. It has decided to go along with undermining faith in institutions, shredding norms, elevating conspiracy theories, disregarding laws, and tossing aside truth whenever the leader dictates. The most demoralizing aspect of the past four years has not been that a boob conman was elected president but that one of the two great political parties surrendered to him utterly.

David suggests that voting against Republican senators is “completely devoid of grace. It ignores the monumental pressures that Donald Trump has placed on the entire GOP and the lack of good options that so many GOP officeholders faced.”

It’s certainly true that Republicans perceived their options to be limited. How many times have they confided, behind closed doors, that they deplore Trump’s conduct, but explain that their hands are tied? If they speak up, they say, they will flush their careers down the drain. Look at what happened to Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford, and Bob Corker!

But this overstates things. A number of Republicans have stood up to Trump and maintained their electoral viability—especially when they challenged him on matters that he has shown little interest in, namely public policy. Sen. Pat Toomey for example, voted against the president’s USMCA trade agreement and (gasp) wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining his reasoning.

It is the only trade pact ever meant to diminish trade. Since Nafta’s implementation, American exports to Mexico have grown more than fivefold. But imports grew even more, widening the trade deficit. The Trump administration finds this unacceptable, even though the trade deficit is mostly meaningless. Hence USMCA has a myriad of provisions to warm the hearts of protectionists.

When the president abruptly announced, following a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Erdoğan, that he was withdrawing American troops forthwith from Syria, a number of Republicans voiced horror. Sen. Ben Sasse said it would lead to a “slaughter.” Sen. Ted Cruz said it would be “DISGRACEFUL if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do.” Rep. Liz Cheney called it a “catastrophic mistake that puts our gains against ISIS at risk and threatens America’s national security.” Sens. Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and others weighed in as well.

When the president suggested lifting sanctions on Russia, Sen. Rob Portman said it would be “horrible” for the United States. And after Gen. James Mattis wrote an op-ed saying that Donald Trump was making a “mockery of the U.S. Constitution,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, “I was really thankful. I thought General Mattis’s words were true, and honest and necessary and overdue.”

So, it is possible to speak up about this president and survive. I use that word advisedly, because these Republican office holders often use words like “kill” or “destroy” or “annihilate” when contemplating what Trump would do to them if they raise their heads too far above the parapet. In fact, all that actually threatened them was the possibility of nasty tweets and the chance that they might lose their seats.

David French writes:

If you think it’s obvious what they should have done, how many readers have faced such a choice: take a tough stand and likely lose your life’s work or muddle through and hope to emerge on the other side with your dignity and conscience intact? If you faced such a choice, did you take the stand and bear the cost?

David is right that very few people in any walk of life display courage on anything, though craven Republicans holding House and Senate posts might want to pause from time to time to contemplate the extraordinary valor of protesters in Hong Kong, Iran, and Egypt who continue to put their freedom and sometimes their lives at risk by taking to the streets. And before we extend too much grace to Republican office holders, we need to ask: Should being an elected official really be one’s “life work?” And must one cling to it even when it requires delegitimizing the very ideas that brought you into politics?

As noted above, Republicans have criticized the president on policy matters, sometimes even harshly. Where they have shrunk into their shells was on matters that are even more critical to the health of our republic. They have, by their silence, given assent to his cruelty, his assaults on truth, his dangerous flirtations with political violence, and his consistent demolition of institutions.

Institutions are like scaffolding. When a society’s institutions are weakened, the whole edifice can come crashing down. This often happens to countries as a consequence of war or natural disasters. In our case, it was self-inflicted before the natural disaster (coronavirus) struck, and now, as masonry hits the pavement and floors sag, we are seeing the results.

Donald Trump undermined the institution of the free press, urging his followers to disbelieve everything except what came from the leader. And Republicans were silent. He weakened respect for law enforcement and the courts, suggesting that he was the victim of a “deep state” and that “so-called judges” need not be respected. And Republicans were silent. He enriched himself and his family. And Republicans were silent. He introduced doubt about accepting the results of elections. He scorned allies and toadied to dictators. And Republicans were silent. He ran the executive branch like a gangster, demanding personal loyalty and abusing officials, like the hapless Jeff Sessions, who merely followed ethics rules. He ignored the law to get his way on the border wall. Silence again. He violated the most sacred norms of a multi-ethnic society by encouraging racial hatred. Crickets. He made the United States guilty of separating babies from their mothers. And Republicans were silent. He undercut the credibility and honor of the Republican party by failing to dissociate it from kooks and criminals. And Republicans were silent.

Elected officials, terrified of their own constituents, have cowered and temporized in the face of a truly unprecedented assault on democratic values. They believed that they were powerless and acted accordingly. Since they were powerless when it counted, what difference would it make if voters were to make it official?

Consider something else that Sen. Murkowski said in response to Gen. Mattis. “When I saw General Mattis’ comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”

When one person shows courage, others are emboldened. If more Republicans had shown a willingness to stand for basic political hygiene, for elemental human decency earlier in this awful era, it might have become contagious.

But since that did not happen, the only thing that will send a message to the Republican party commensurate with its moral abdication over the past four years is to lose in a landslide. Not just Trump, but his silent enablers too.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.

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