The full spectrum of Republican behavior has been on display this week. Michael Cohen (no relation, save in the most distant possible sense) ratted out his former boss Donald Trump in a spectacularly revealing piece of congressional testimony. Representative Matt Gaetz, the self-described “outspoken conservative firebrand” from Florida, threatened Cohen (by tweet, of course) with revelations of marital infidelity. When reminded that this could be construed as witness tampering, he pulled the tweet. The vast majority of House Republicans lined up to vote against a resolution rejecting President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. And 13 Republicans, including Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin—like Gaetz, a second-term representative—voted in favor of it.
Cohen is not the most pathetic specimen of Republican. He was a little grifter hopelessly, shamelessly attempting to make something of himself by attaching his person to a really big grifter. His testimony is one long recitation of Trump’s scams, bigotry, payoffs, and lies. And possibly worse, of a dirty-tricks campaign in the 2016 election coordinated with a foreign power.
Cohen’s contrition is forcefully put: Whether they are his words or those of his lawyer, one cannot tell. But he gave the impression of having retained enough decency, despite a career of emptying the chamber pots of the Trump Organization, to evince some sense of shame. Perhaps it is the shadow of the Holocaust that darkened his father’s early life; perhaps it is affection for a family that he admits he betrayed; perhaps it is a spark of the moral sense that can survive a career of abasement.
The contrast between Gaetz and Gallagher is much more interesting. Gaetz, a product of William & Mary Law School, is a fierce defender of all things military. His website touts his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, of which he is a lifetime member. He voted to support the president, of course, and avows his determination to root out corruption in the Justice Department and the FBI, institutions that Republicans like him once supported.
Gallagher might or might not have the same ardent love of guns that Gaetz has; he certainly does not have the same morbid suspicion of federal law-enforcement officers. But he actually carried a weapon in the service of his country, which so many of the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots of the GOP have inexplicably avoided. After graduating from Princeton, he joined the United States Marine Corps and served several tours in the dusty, dangerous Anbar province in Iraq before getting a doctorate at Georgetown University. He is one of the thoughtful voices on national defense in Congress, although he does not boast about it. He just does his job.
And then there is the gray mass of Republicans in the middle, the ones in the House who voted with the president in favor of declaring a national emergency, and the ones who will do so in the Senate. They are not as sleazy as Cohen, as pugnaciously nasty as Gaetz, or as principled as Gallagher. They are simpler souls: They are cowards.
Talk to them privately, and they will confess that there is no emergency at the southern border—there is a problem, to be sure, but one whose seriousness has actually diminished over time. They know that the congressional leadership had the votes to build walls there for the first two years of the administration but did not manage it. They know, for that matter, that border security involves much more than walls. They know that the president is invoking emergency powers as an electoral ploy, and because he is impatient.
They know, in their timid breasts, that they would have howled with indignation if Barack Obama had declared a national emergency in such a circumstance. As they stare at their coffee cup at breakfast, the thought occurs to them that a future left-wing president could make dangerous use of these same powers—because Speaker Nancy Pelosi rubbed that fact in their face. Some of the brighter ones might even realize that emergency powers are a favored tool of authoritarians everywhere.
But they are afraid. They are afraid of being primaried. They are afraid of being called out by the bully whom they secretly despise but to whom they pledge public fealty. They are afraid of having to find another occupation than serving in elective office. And the most conceited of the lot—and there are quite a few of those, perhaps more in the Senate than in the House—think that it would be a tragedy if the country no longer had their service at its disposal.
It most definitely would not be a loss. Indeed, the greatest service that a troubled Republican senator could do his country would be to stand on his hind legs and say, “I do not care if this causes me to lose reelection. This is wrong, and I am voting in favor of this resolution.” That is what has been so stunning about a Republican Party that has boasted about its patriotism—its effective lack of that quality, or its distortion by ludicrous self-regard.
At some point, this will come crashing to an end. The Republican Party has placed its bets against young people, people of color, urban populations, the college-educated, and moderates. Yes, 80 percent of Republicans like the job Trump is doing, though they might not like the man himself. But winning over 80 percent of 31 percent of the country is not a winning formula, and the Republican Party will deservedly find that out the hard way.
For much of the history of the United States, Americans have treated their politicians with the wariness that befits the citizens of a great republic. They knew that the Founders were right in constructing a system in which ambition would check ambition, and in which power would be so distributed and set up in opposition that tyranny would not have much of a chance. But rarely in our history has this country had one of its major parties so completely in the grip not of fools but of opportunists, not of the vicious but the pathologically fearful, not of the misguided but the spineless.
Michael Cohen is one of those creatures that history’s spotlight illuminates for a few minutes of notoriety before he slips back into the obscurity of a prison cell. Matt Gaetz is one of those ideologues who steps out too far, gets burned, steps back, but is sure to erupt again. Mike Gallagher is one of those politicians trying to do the right thing, and who, more rarely, when their country calls, say, “Here I am, send me.” But the podgy mass of the Republican Party in Congress is formed of those who James Russell Lowell, one of the founders of this magazine, said are willing to “in silence shrink / From the truth they needs must think.” The most fitting epitaph for their political lives, and for their hollow party, will be “Here lies not much.”