The Hollow Men

Why didn’t the most talented, most influential Republican politicians—men like Chris Christie, Tom Cotton, and Paul Ryan—do more to stop Donald Trump?

Andrew Kelly / Reuters

The neediness of politicians has always fascinated me; the pathological desire for relevance; the plasticity of belief in the service of self-aggrandizement; the depths plumbed in order to stave off insignificance, which can be as frightening as non-existence itself. One of my favorite politicians, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is almost morbidly needy. His desire for attention made him into a brilliant retailer, mainly of himself, but also of his ideas, and intermittently, of his state. His neediness made him greatly entertaining. But it also caused him to betray his own principles.

I recognize that it took millions of Republican primary voters to bring America to this frightening moment, a moment in which a preposterous grifter of authoritarian bent whose mental health is the subject of pervasive and anxious speculation, has become a major-party nominee for president. But it was men like Christie who were indispensable in the creation of this moment. Donald J. Trump could have been stopped. I believe he could have been stopped early, by a concerted effort to unify the party behind a single, viable, non-fraudulent candidate; and he could have been stopped late, if Republicans like Christie had not crumpled before Trump. A handful of honorable men did, in fact, try to stop him. But they were too few in number, and too marginal to make a difference. Collectively, the most influential and smartest Republican elected officials—people who fall into the general category of Them That Knew Better—just might have been able to devise a way to prevent what is happening from happening. But abdication of responsibility and self-debasement in the pursuit of power were the order of the day.

For the past several weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the role in this dangerous drama played by Christie and two other elected officials of my acquaintance: Tom Cotton, the junior senator from Arkansas, and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House. I’ve been troubled by their actions not only because I’m familiar with these men and their records, but because they are politicians of unusual gifts, from whom much has been expected.

Christie I know well; Cotton I know somewhat well, and Ryan I know only in passing, though I’ve followed his career closely. They are three dissimilar politicians—Ryan possesses little of Christie’s ostentatious pugnacity; Cotton is as unapproachable as Ryan is genial. But all three share certain characteristics: Each is very smart; each is capable of serious analytical lift; each has a well-developed ideology rooted in different Republican and conservative schools of thought; and each possesses a great deal of energy. None of these men, to the best of my knowledge, is inclined to racism or anti-Semitism or misogyny. And each of these men—this is very important—is hugely devoted to his children.

Christie’s role in this dangerous farce has been documented carefully, as have the serial humiliations he has suffered at the hands of the cruel narcissist he supports for president. After Christie’s defeat in the New Hampshire primary—a defeat that pushed him from the race—a couple of friends who know him well suggested to me that it would only be a matter of time before he lined-up with Trump. I chose not to believe it, but the argument was compelling: Christie’s options were narrowing rapidly, and he could not abide inconsequence; and he was known as a person who is drawn inexorably, almost helplessly, to celebrity. I understood the first part of the argument, and I’ve witnessed the second—his love for Bruce Springsteen, a love unrequited, was the subject of an article I published in The Atlantic four years ago. I’ve seen Christie risk losing his composure in pursuit of Paul McCartney, Bono, and the King of Jordan, but, I must confess, his desire for celebrity affirmation made him seem pleasingly vulnerable and refreshingly three-dimensional. Until it made him seem craven.

If he were just a small-timer, with no (putatively) fixed beliefs, no skills, and without an agile intelligence, perhaps Christie’s collapse into the arms of a Mussolini manqué wouldn’t seem so tragic. But let me bring you back to a time when Christie stood, eloquently, in defense of a core American value. It was five years ago, and he had just appointed a Muslim American lawyer to serve as a judge on the Superior Court of Passaic County. The lawyer, Sohail Mohammed, once defended Muslims who had been detained by the FBI after the 9/11 attacks. None of the men wound-up being charged with crimes related to terrorism—and, in any case, they would have still have had the right to an attorney—but Mohammed’s work, and his religion, were still too much for the anti-Muslim right. Opponents argued, among other things, that he would attempt to impose shari’a, Islamic law, on New Jersey. Christie, who knew Mohammed, and worked with him closely in the aftermath of 9/11, was having none of it, and he rose to Mohammed’s defense, pushing him through to confirmation.

“I just thought this was a ridiculous and disgusting situation,” Christie told me at the time. “I think it is terrible to try to exclude someone from office based only on his religion, and that’s what was happening here.” He denounced in furious terms those who applied a religious test to Mohammed’s appointment. “I was disgusted, candidly, by some of the questions he was asked by both parties at the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said at a news conference. “This shari’a law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”

Five years later, Chris Christie abases himself before the candidate of the crazies.

I haven’t spoken to Christie in recent days to discuss his affection for a borderline fascist; once he decided to become a defender of Trump, our occasional conversations came to an end. (Here is our most recent on-the-record conversation, conducted when he was still trying to charm and bluster his way to the nomination.) A few weeks ago, I texted him during the controversy concerning Trump’s habit of retweeting his Nazi-inclined supporters. I asked Christie, “What am I supposed to make of the fact that Donald Trump is retweeting antisemites?” He never answered.

Chris Christie could have chosen to stand for the principles he defended in the Sohail Mohammed controversy. He could have denounced the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who are so drawn to Trump. He could have stood with the federal judge excoriated by Trump for the sin of having Mexican parents. But he didn’t. He chose, instead, capitulation.

I place Tom Cotton in a different category than Christie. Unlike Christie, Cotton has a future in the Republican Party—assuming there is, after this election, a Republican Party—and unlike Christie, he has not gone all-in for Trump. But he has gone too far, nonetheless. Earlier this month, during a public interview with Cotton at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I got to watch a politician contort himself in embarrassing ways to avoid telling the truth about his party’s candidate for president. I praised Cotton for showing up, and submitting to questions, and I made a reasonable attempt to keep the conversation focused on substantial foreign-policy and national-security concerns. Cotton and I differ on some crucial issues: I’m 51 percent in favor of the Iran nuclear deal; he’s 100 percent opposed, and it is fair to say that we have not learned the same lessons from the Iraq War, which he still defends with enthusiasm. But he is a serious student of world affairs, and his views can be located on the continuum of mainstream American foreign-policy thought.

There is no one on this continuum—a continuum that runs from President Obama on the left to Lindsey Graham on the right—who believes that Trump would be anything but a major threat to global stability and to the post-World War II American-led international order. In fact, Cotton’s views of the world are closer to those of Hillary Clinton than they are to those of Trump. They are not close, but they are closer: Neither Clinton nor Cotton is an isolationist, or a rigid protectionist, or a nativist, and both have a well-developed understanding of America’s exceptional global role.

When I sat down with Cotton, I started by raising a basic issue: Trump’s qualifications for president:

Jeffrey Goldberg: I have to push at this a little bit because it strikes me that—putting aside matters of ideology… a lot of people who study foreign policy believe that he doesn’t have enough knowledge about the world to be president. Do you believe he has enough knowledge today to be president of the United States?

Tom Cotton: It’s hard to say that anyone, before they become president, or certainly before they become the nominee and then the president-elect, have access to the intelligence that we have.

Goldberg: Wait, are you saying that you know more about international affairs right now than he does?

Cotton: I’m saying that I have access to classified information at the highest levels of our government.

Goldberg: What I’m trying to say—I’m actually paying you a compliment here in saying that the junior senator from Arkansas knows more about, for instance, Russia, than the presumptive Republican nominee for president. That doesn’t seem like a healthy situation to me.

Cotton: I know more about what’s happening in the world right now than Hillary Clinton knows as well because she has not had access to classified information for four years—

Goldberg: We’re not talking about classified information. We’re talking about analysis, about reasoning, about having experience in the world, about understanding history … Just help me through this because I don’t understand you. Again, it’s not ideological. He doesn’t seem to have the preparation needed to do this job.

Cotton: Well, I mean, most presidents would say that there is no job that prepares you to be president…

Lacking a wall against which I could bang my head, I chose to pivot to a discussion of Cotton’s worldview. Soon enough, he was providing his expansive, action-oriented understanding of the role of the United States on the global stage: “I think the history of the last hundred years, certainly the last 70 years, is a history of U.S. leadership that's promoting stability and order throughout the [world] and that we should be proud of that and we should try to continue that in the 21st century.” At which point I interjected: “By the way, that's something that Hillary Clinton once told me almost verbatim.” I pointed out that Trump, on the other hand, has never articulated a view of America as the great victor of the 20th Century—as the country that vanquished communism and fascism and made itself indispensable to the cause of freedom, and free markets. Cotton wouldn’t bite, nor would he bite when, in a discussion of U.S. nuclear policy, I said, in frustration, “You know what a nuclear triad is. I don’t understand how you can be comfortable with someone who, a few months ago, didn’t know what the nuclear triad was.”

Cotton responded: “I think that Donald Trump is well aware of what the triad is.”

I find it impossible to believe that Tom Cotton thinks that a man of Trump’s knowledge, disposition, and ideology should serve as president. As one of the Senate’s stalwart young conservatives, and as a leading new voice among Republican hawks, he could have, at any moment, told the truth: A Donald Trump presidency will be a danger to national security. But instead, like so many other elected officials who should know better, he abdicated.

In our extended conversation, Cotton seemed most uncomfortable when I raised the subject of Trump’s race-baiting. I quoted to him Paul Ryan’s argument that Trump’s criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel represented the “textbook definition of a racist comment,” and I asked him if he believed himself that Trump was a racist. Cotton said no, Trump is not racist; he is, however, “racially inflammatory.” I asked him to explain the difference between “racist” and “racially inflammatory.” His answer was not persuasive.

Tom Cotton always seemed to me to be a rigid moralist, and a blunt and candid man, so I imagine that there will come a day when he acknowledges to himself the consequences—not to his career, but to his conscience—of covering-up for Trump.

It is, of course, Ryan himself who bears enormous responsibility for this disaster. As the nation’s highest-ranking Republican elected official, he has been in a unique position to call out Trump, and Trumpism, in stark terms. His condemnation of Trump’s racist remarks concerning Judge Curiel was necessary but insufficient. He could have, at that moment, followed the logic of his observation about Trump’s comments to its obvious conclusion: A man who makes racist statements is a racist, and a racist should not be allowed to lead a major American political party. Ryan could have become at that moment the prime defender of the values he believes his party represents. He might have won this fight. He also might have lost, of course, but there would have been dignity in the losing.

I’m not unaware of competing pressures on such figures as Ryan. My colleague David Frum argues that it is not the job of high elected officials to express their inner convictions, but to work to manage messy electoral coalitions in service of broad party goals. I don’t disagree with David in the abstract, but at a certain point—say, the point at which the party of Lincoln decides to nominate a racist for president—a person of conscience has no choice but to stand athwart his party and yell stop.

I vividly remember an encounter last year, when I ran into Ryan at an ice cream shop with his children. We made small talk for a few minutes, mainly about our kids. He is, by all accounts, a devoted father, and a conscientious one; this was readily visible to me. So the question I ask myself is this: How will this good man explain to his children his decision to support a racist for president?

This is not a normal year, because Donald Trump is not a normal candidate. These men—Chris Christie, Tom Cotton, Paul Ryan, along with a large number of other influential Republicans—know that Trump is not a normal candidate. They also know that another path existed for them, a path traveled by Mitt Romney, by the Bushes, by Ben Sasse and Mark Kirk and Jeff Flake. But they’ve so far chosen the path of submission and expediency and rationalization. It is not, however, too late. The saving grace here is that they have until November 8th to tell the country what I believe they know to be true—that Donald Trump is singularly unfit to be president, and that the country is more important than their party, or their careers.