They Should Have Taken Them at Their Word

Supporters are recoiling from some Republican politicians, not because they betrayed their campaign-trail promises, but because they fulfilled them.

Senator Josh Hawley
Francis Chung / E&E News / Politico / AP

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

They never saw it coming.

Ben Goldey resigned as Representative Lauren Boebert’s communications director after the January 6 attempted coup. Lauren Blair Bianchi quit the same job in Senator Ted Cruz’s office. George Erwin Jr. had rallied local law-enforcement backers for Representative Madison Cawthorn and was preparing to take a job working for him, but has now disavowed him. Charles Johnson, the owner of the San Francisco Giants, maxed out to Boebert’s campaign but now wants his money back.

There’s a story as old as politics: A leader comes to power promising one thing, then does another, leaving behind a disappointed crew of supporters. From Brutus’s misgivings about Julius Caesar’s nascent dictatorship to Adolphe Thiers’s misjudgment of Louis Napoleon to David Stockman’s realization that Ronald Reagan wasn’t completely sincere about shrinking government, the same thing has happened time and again. Mentors, supporters, financial backers, and eager young aides have become disillusioned and complained that their hero has changed.

That’s not what has happened here, though. In the cases of Boebert, Cawthorn, Cruz, and Senator Josh Hawley, their old allies are distancing themselves not because these politicians failed to do what they promised—the problem is they have been only too successful at accomplishing what they promised.

These defections are part of a broader trend of Republicans and donors recoiling from politicians connected to the failed January 6 coup attempt, which was encouraged by President Donald Trump and many lawmakers. The backlash does not measure up to the scale of the offense, and it may not last, but it has forced some reconsiderations in Washington.

Those distancing themselves from these four lawmakers deserve particularly little credit for late epiphanies, though. As candidates and members of Congress, they were explicit and direct about what they intended. Their backers apparently didn’t believe they were serious, didn’t believe they could follow through, or cynically concluded that their more dangerous tendencies were electorally advantageous.

“Today is 1776,” Boebert tweeted the morning of January 6, then she objected to certifying Joe Biden’s victory later that day, falsely alleging “fraudulent” votes.

No one who had heard of Boebert before then should have had any illusions about her views. Everything about Boebert’s support for a violent attempt to overturn the election was telegraphed during her campaign. She defeated a Republican incumbent in a primary by complaining that he was complicit in allowing blue states to “steal” Colorado’s votes. Her political persona was built on her fondness for the open carry of firearms and her willingness to thumb her nose at the rule of law, ignoring the state’s coronavirus protocols. (This in addition to two minor charges in her past, one of which was dismissed and another that resulted in a $100 fine.) She also flirted with QAnon, saying she was “very familiar” with it. “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real, because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values,” she said in an interview.

After his donation to Boebert came under scrutiny, Johnson, the Giants’ owner, issued a statement asking for his money back and condemning the insurrection. “It is often difficult to predict the future behavior of candidates and I would never have imagined that any legitimate candidate would participate in undermining the core values of our great country,” he said. This is absurd. Boebert’s actions, and their effects on January 6, were not an aberration. They were instead an unexpectedly early victory for her unhinged rhetoric.

Cawthorn is another member of the freshman class in Congress. Like Boebert, he won an upset primary victory, and like Boebert, he made his views clear during the campaign. In 2017, he posted an Instagram picture from Hitler’s vacation retreat, which he said was on his bucket list. One might write this off as mere history-buff stuff if not for other troubling material: his odd comments about converting Jews, his charge that Senator Cory Booker “aims to ruin white males running for office,” the multiple women who claimed he made unwanted sexual advances, his own misleading claim about admission to the Naval Academy.

After the election, Cawthorn quickly adopted Trump’s claims of fraud. In December, he spoke at a Turning Points USA event in Florida. “So, everybody, I’m telling you, I’m encouraging you, please get on the phone, call your congressman,” he said. “And feel free—you can lightly threaten them and say, ‘You know what? If you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you. Madison Cawthorn is coming after you. Everybody’s coming after you.’” He also spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 before the riot, saying, “This crowd has some fight in it.” (He was right.)

In the aftermath of the riot, some of Cawthorn’s supporters suddenly got cold feet. Two Western North Carolina conservative activists who’d backed his run for office unloaded on Cawthorn on Facebook. “He has blood on his hands,” wrote Eddie Harwood. Erwin, a former sheriff who campaigned and vouched for Cawthorn and had been asked to be his district director, agreed. “I apologize to all of my law enforcement friends, other politicians, family and friends—I was wrong, I misled you,” he replied.

“I started to think, Okay, where there is some smoke, there has got to be some fire here,” Erwin told Blue Ridge Public Radio. He’s right, but the smoke was there all along.

Still, no condemnation has been as fierce as what former Senator Jack Danforth of Missouri had to say about Hawley, his erstwhile protégé.

Supporting Josh and trying so hard to get him elected to the Senate was the worst mistake I ever made in my life,” Danforth told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Yesterday was the physical culmination of the long attempt (by Hawley and others) to foment a lack of public confidence in our democratic system. It is very dangerous to America to continue pushing this idea that government doesn’t work and that voting was fraudulent.”

Perhaps Danforth was fooled by Hawley’s résumé: Stanford undergrad, Yale Law School, clerking for Chief Justice John Roberts, professorships, and a book from Yale Press. But Hawley made clear during his 2018 Senate race that he would back Trump to the hilt, come what may—as well as that any ideological commitments were plastic and subordinate to his ambition. Cruz, who quickly switched from Trump critic to obsequious appeaser after the 2016 election, had shown his true colors long before January 6, too.

The professions of surprise and horror from allies of Boebert, Cawthorn, Cruz, and Hawley recall the early weeks of the Trump presidency. Despite everything that Trump said during the 2016 election, some Republicans continued to believe that he would moderate once in office. What he said on the trail was just what he said on the trail: campaign promises and nothing more. The gravity of his duty would be impressed upon him once he entered office, and even if it didn’t, he’d be easily controlled by his aides and by experienced politicians like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

That is, of course, not what happened. Trump wasn’t just vamping for crowds (not that it would have excused his demagoguery if he were), and neither were these politicians. Their sin is that they did precisely what they said they would. Their staffers, donors, and mentors’ sin was refusing to believe them.