Republican Tolerance for Despotism Keeps Rising
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Any other Republican president -- Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush -- would have campaigned in the final week of the midterm elections on the booming economy, unemployment under 4 percent, rising real wages and a stock market up 25 percent.
Donald Trump instead chose to close with racist rants about hordes of terrorists and brown people about to invade the Rio Grande. A man of dark instincts and impulses, he is incapable of uplift and hope; he traffics in fear and hate.
There's a case to be made that it worked in places, rallying Republican voters in states like Florida and Missouri and even providing the decisive votes in rural areas in a House race Democrats expected to win, centered in Lexington, Kentucky.
So Trump has something to crow about, even if, given his narcissism, he's wildly exaggerating it, and even though surveys indicate that his last-minute demagogy, after acts of violence, backfired.
The only clear losers in the midterms were Republican politicians like Governor John Kasich of Ohio and Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and intellectual conservative journalists like Michael Gerson and George Will, who want the Republicans to return to a principled conservative party that is welcoming and rejects race-baiting.
It's now Trump's Republican Party, mean-spirited, bigoted and ethically challenged. We know Trump's character, so the focus should be on the enablers in the party, such as:
--- House Speaker Paul Ryan, an inclusive man, who sold his political soul to accommodate Trump. His likely successor, Kevin McCarthy of California, can skip the sale part.
--- The right-wing House Freedom Caucus, whose signature is not limited government or balanced budgets. It is hate-filled partisan attacks to divert from Trump's illicit behavior and undercut special counsel Robert Mueller's serious, and remarkably successful, investigation into the president's Russia connections.
--- Senator Ted Cruz. In 2016, Trump insulted Cruz's wife and linked his father to the man who assassinated John F. Kennedy. Facing a tough re-election fight in Texas, Cruz last month slobbered all over Trump.
--- South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, once considered a successor to his mentor, the late John McCain, as the conscience of the Senate. Facing lousy polls at home and the threat of a right-wing challenge in a 2020 primary, Graham, who can't imagine life outside the Senate, has turned into a Trump sycophant and right-wing cheerleader. (The always tasteless Trump last week took another verbal slap at McCain, who died 11 weeks ago.)
--- Josh Hawley, the newly elected Missouri senator, who is a former clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and whom conservatives had lauded as a deeply moral man. In the the closing weeks of the campaign, however, Hawley railed against Democratic-inspired "mob behavior," while effusively praising Trump, who was the one inciting mobs. Lying about his position on health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions may be just politics; on Trump, Hawley flunked the character test.
One staunch conservative Republican who refused to act as a Trump lackey and who paid the price is Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina. He thinks the Trump dominance will prove ephemeral. "We've seen this (nationalism/populism) before and it doesn't last," said Sanford, who was beaten in the GOP primary. "The Trump effect won't be long term."
This can happen only if some Republicans find their spines and souls. The day after the election, Trump gave them an opening to do this when he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions (or, more precisely, the ever cowardly president had his chief of staff do the deed), replacing him with a loyalist hack who now will oversee the special counsel.
There was only one reason to get rid of Sessions: to sabotage Mueller and protect Trump, who clearly has something to hide. (If only the president knew any history, a role model would be the New Jersey political boss, Frank "I am the law" Hague.)
There is a simple way Republicans can show some mettle: if five senators -- starting with Maine's Susan Collins, who complains it's unacceptable to impede Mueller but does little about it -- say they won't vote for anther federal judge until legislation is enacted guaranteeing the independence of the special counsel. The model is the 1973 set of conditions laid down by Republicans for a special counsel investigating Richard Nixon.
That would require Republicans who have built reputations for integrity, decency and principled values, like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Ohio's Rob Portman, to decide they no longer, under the phony pretense of party loyalty, can continue to acquiesce in a despotic regime.
History will determine whether they are a source of pride or embarrassment to their grandchildren. For now, we need to vigorously hold these Republican feet to the fire.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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