Profiles in Cowardice—GOP Leaders and Donald Trump

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Profiles in Cowardice—GOP Leaders and Donald Trump

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Photo: Gage Skidmore/cc/flickr)

Donald Trump has entered a new phase of autocratic weirdness. His attack on Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding in the lawsuit against Trump University, was a trifecta. It combined outright racism with an assault on the independent judiciary and a clear warning that Trump would use the presidency to settle personal business scores.

His rants at reporters display contempt for the role of a free press. He would govern like a spiteful tyrant, with all the awesome powers of a president of the United States — settling scores, punishing enemies, making impetuous, ignorant decisions.

As this reality sinks in, Trump’s campaign should be imploding about now. And it might be — if other Republican leaders displayed a modicum of concern for the future of the Republic. But with a few notable exceptions, the GOP leadership is either giving Trump a pass, or just taking a pass.

You can count the exceptions on the fingers of one hand (and still have the middle finger left over for other uses in this campaign). Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is one. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is a second. And the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, a third. All have spoken out against Trump. Rick Synder, the Republican Governor of Michigan who in big trouble at home, declined to make an endorsement, but otherwise doesn’t comment.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, chair of the Republican Governors’ Association and the rare high-ranking Latina in Republican politics, has traded gibes with Trump. But lately, she and Trump have been trying to make nice.

Jeb Bush has said will not vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, but has not spoken forcefully against him. Karl Rove, who has called Trump “a complete idiot,” says he is undecided. Likewise John Kasich and Ted Cruz.

Other Republican elected leaders who grasp just what Trump represents are showing their quiet displeasure only by staying away from the convention. That includes several GOP incumbent senators in tight races — all of whom have nonetheless endorsed Trump and will vote for him. Susan Collins of Maine, the last Republican moderate in the Senate, supports him.

Even worse, several Republicans who were savaged, slandered and humiliated by Trump have lined up to endorse him. That craven group includes House Speaker Paul Ryan, his wetness Little Marco Rubio, and John (“I like people who were not captured”) McCain.

Do these people have no self-respect, and no concern for their country? Surely, they have not had a conversion experience and concluded that Trump will be a great leader.

Still worse are people like Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, who provide excuses for Trump’s outbursts. After Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel and threats to use the presidency to go after him, McConnell helpfully explained that a President Trump would be constrained by the advice of a White House Counsel — as if Trump’s inner staff would be anything but Putin-style flunkies.

These are the same people who rail at Barack Obama’s supposed abuses of executive power — for benign and carefully wrought orders like giving more workers overtime pay protection or staying the deportation of exemplary immigrants brought here as young children. What sort of executive do they think Donald Trump might be?

One of these senior Republicans should break ranks and demonstrate some concern for the larger stakes by giving a major address warning against the menace of Trump as an incipient fascist.

Why doesn’t that happen?

First, these cowards don’t want to face the wrath of pro-Trump voters. Second, they are worried that intensifying the split in the Republican Party will only lead to a bigger November victory for Democrats. And third, some of them think, opportunistically, that a President Trump might be used to further Republican goals, even though he has displayed nothing but contempt for core Republican principles.

The trouble with these calculations is that the split is already there. A figure like John McCain, in a close Arizona re-election battle, is already in trouble with the GOP Tea Party base. Endorsing Trump, after having been savaged by Trump, just makes McCain look like a sad old man.

John Kasich, the rare contender in the Republican primaries who accurately called out Trump for who he is, will not save his own skin by going wobbly on Trump. He only comes across as weak.

Trump is a threat to the American Republic, as real as a terrorist attack or an invasion. If elected, he will set off the gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. The Republican leaders who are backing him surely know that. I’d like to believe that at least some of them got into politics for principled reasons. Where are those principles now?

Profiles in courage are rare in politics. Recent ones include acting attorney general James Comey’s refusal in 2004 to sign off on a key aspect of the Bush Administration’s illegal domestic spying program; the 1996 resignation in protest by three top Clinton officials (Peter Edelman, Mary Jo Bane, and Wendell Primus) when Clinton decided to sign a Republican bill destroying the federal guarantee of aid for the needy; and the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, when Richard Nixon ordered them to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. It fell to Nixon loyalist Robert Bork, then solicitor general, to do the deed.

There are few if any Republicans today with the stature and dignity of Elliot Richardson, and one can imagine even fewer in a Trump Administration. A decision by major Republican leaders to call Trump what he is, to say so out loud in a major speech or statement, would be a courageous decision to put country above party.

If, through a chain of mishaps, Trump actually became president and America’s first dictator, the more principled of these leaders would be wracked with regret. Many more, I’m sad to say, would be scrambling to get into the new Administration. Should the story be written that America lost its democracy, the sheer cowardice of mainstream Republican leaders will be a sorry chapter.

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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