Note from John: For those who emailed me (and anyone else who might have been curious), I took a couple weeks off from writing about politics to finish up the final draft of my next book (which I can report is now in the hands of my publisher). I’ll have information on it in the coming months. Now, onto today’s column…
Bob Dole once famously remarked that “the most dangerous place in Washington to be is between Chuck Schumer and a microphone.” It was a well-earned rib, showcasing the New York senator’s propensity to cut in front of colleagues at press-conference podiums — his way of inserting himself and his image at the top of various political stories.
Humor aside, there had been a place in Washington that really was the “most dangerous” to be standing in for the last four years… at least if you were a Republican. That place was between Donald Trump and whatever it was he wanted on any given day.
The most literal example came just last month when a mob of angry Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol. After breaking through steel barriers, doors and windows, and assaulting police officers (murdering one and hospitalizing dozens), they roamed the halls of Congress threatening to hang then Vice President Mike Pence for failing to unilaterally overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. election.
Of course, Pence had no such power, but the reality of the situation didn’t matter. Trump had convinced his most dedicated supporters that the fate of the “rigged” election rested on his V.P.’s shoulders, and that by choosing not to “save” American democracy, Pence — a man who’d been unquestionably loyal to Trump for four years — had committed a cowardly act of betrayal.
The devastating result of that fiction was some of those supporters believing it was their patriotic duty to wage a domestic terrorist attack on one of our government’s most important institutions.
But as strange as it may seem to do so, especially with Trump’s impeachment trial currently underway, let’s set aside the acts of violence for a moment. Let’s also set aside the numerous death threats directed at Republican lawmakers, government officials, and even conservative media figures who’ve had the gall to get on Trump’s bad side (often just for telling the truth). Let’s instead look at the political dangers associated with displeasing Trump.
It’s no secret that a number of elected Republican leaders, many of whom were once believed to be the future of the party, had their political careers cut short because of real or perceived conflicts with our 45th president. The religious devotion from Trump’s base ultimately sent people like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Paul Ryan, Justin Amash, Mark Sanford, and Mia Love packing. It also transformed once outspoken Trump skeptics into embarrassing Trump sycophants, ready and willing to abandon just about any past principle or policy position in exchange for a pat on the head from their party’s leader (and thus a nod from his base). I’m talking about people like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and those in the House who voted to stop the certification of the 2020 election.
What was a bit of an unknown, however, was whether the end of the Trump presidency would mark a new era in the GOP — an era in which the party’s leaders didn’t necessarily have to be beholden to the worst instincts of a morally and ethically bankrupt individual, in order to have a future in the party.
On paper, it certainly seemed feasible.
After all, the Republicans lost the House, Senate, and presidency under Trump (the first time that had happened since Herbert Hoover’s administration). They lost key voting blocks, along with the states of Georgia and Arizona. They watched the leader of their party refuse to concede defeat (another historical first), and then spend two months trying to overthrow the results of the election through a steady diet of lies, conspiracy theories, and threats that ultimately led to a deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
Since the attack, the party has seen at least 140,000 voters leave their ranks. They’ve also seen their favorability drop by 6 points among the electorate, while favorability toward the Democrats has risen.
Such events and revelations should have made standing up to Donald Trump an easier thing to do, post-presidency. And to their credit, some Republicans have risen to the occasion.
Among them is Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who said of President Trump on Fox News Sunday, “Somebody who has provoked an attack on the United States Capitol to prevent the counting of electoral votes, which resulted in five people dying, who refused to stand up immediately when he was asked and stop the violence, that — that is a person who does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.”
Cheney also stated, “The oath that I took to the Constitution compelled me to vote for impeachment and it doesn’t bend to partisanship, it doesn’t bend to political pressure. It’s the most important oath that we take.”
These statements, as strong as they are, aren’t much different than the ones Cheney made immediately following the January 6th attack. But they’re important at a time when many others in her party, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have already backed off of their initial condemnations of Trump… perhaps after witnessing the political backlash Cheney has received for her principled stance.
That backlash has included the Wyoming Republican Party, after only 11 minutes of deliberation, officially censuring Cheney for her impeachment vote. It has included her approval rating among Republican Wyomingites dropping to just 10%. It’s also included two Trump-loyal primary challengers already vying for her district in 2022.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska has also come out strongly against Trump’s efforts to steal the election, as well as his role in the U.S. Capitol attack. For that, he too is facing censure from his state’s GOP.
Like Cheney, Sasse isn’t backing down. He released a video from his office last week, telling the Nebraska GOP’s State Central Committee: “You are welcome to censure me again, but let’s be clear about why: It’s because I still believe (as you used to) that politics is not about the weird worship of one dude.”
About the future of the party, Sasse added, “We’re gonna have to choose between conservatism and madness, between just railing about who we’re mad at, versus actually trying to persuade rising generations of Americans again. That’s where I’m focused. And I sincerely hope that many of you will join in celebrating these big, worthy causes for freedom.”
It’s an important point he made, because while many in today’s Republican party listen to people like Cheney, Sasse, and Mitt Romney, and only hear “Never Trump” sentiment, what these leaders are really talking about are principles that should — and would in rational times — transcend Trump (or any individual).
Yet, much of the GOP is still focused on a Trump purity test.
Additional examples include the Arizona State GOP, who recently targeted Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain (John McCain’s widow) for censure, for the sin of supporting Joe Biden in the November election. Ironically, McCain and Flake were the last Republican Senate candidates who actually managed to win in the state. Once they were off the ballots, Democrats picked up both seats with wins over Trump-convert, Martha McSally.
Even the Oregon Republican Party (yes, there is one) passed a resolution of condemnation against the ten House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment. (You’d think they’d have other things to worry about).
Of course, none of the aforementioned state parties released any form of condemnation of Trump’s actions since the election, including on what transpired on January 6th. Perhaps they’re afraid to. After all, according to national polls, over 80% of Republican voters still view Trump favorably.
A separate, rather glaring takeaway from all of this is that while the “rigged election” hoax may turn out to be the most consequential lie of the Trump presidency, there’s another whopper — shared among a huge number of Trump supporters over the past four years — that has been thoroughly debunked. I’m talking about the rationalization that Republican support for Trump has primarily been about policies, and not personality or raw tribalism. I’d heard this ad nauseam since 2017, and it never really panned out.
It’s 2021, and Trump’s gone from office. He isn’t signing legislation into law. He isn’t nominating judges. He isn’t issuing executive orders. He is completely detached from public policy, and will be for years to come (if not forever).
Yet, a current Republican lawmaker like Liz Cheney, whose policy voting record aligned with Trump over 90% of the time, is now a villain within her party. She’s been punished politically and called on to step down… not because of any policy, but because she sought constitutional accountability for the objectively abhorrent behavior of a public official who no longer has anything to offer beyond personality and raw tribalism.
And what’s Donald Trump doing now that he lost both the White House and the Senate for the Republicans, and with it much of their ability to pursue good policies and oppose bad ones? According to numerous reports, he’s plotting revenge against the sitting Republicans who supported his impeachment, by trying to get them primaried out of office.
What policy end is achieved by that, other than increasing the likelihood of Republican seats being lost to Democratic opponents in the general election, thus putting liberals in a better position to enact their policies?
No, what we’re seeing isn’t about policies. It’s about a personality cult. And if the GOP is to evolve beyond that, or even wants to, some things will need to change. That change would have to start with leadership, strong principles, a vision beyond grievance, and a respect for those who carry such mantles.
“The weird worship of one dude,” as Sasse put it, isn’t going to do the trick.
Note from John: I’ve been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I’ve been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d love for you to subscribe (it’s free).