Maybe Ryan and McConnell Are the Real Patriots?

Then-president Felipe Calderon of Mexico with President Obama at the White House in 2012. A Mexico diplomat argues that his country's experience in Calderon's era has lessons for the United States now.  (Larry Downing / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the Trump Time Capsule series, I have noted once or twice, or a million times, that “responsible” Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are embarrassing themselves and their party by continuing to stand with Donald Trump as potential Commander-in-Chief.

Jorge Guajardo, a Mexican citizen who on his Twitter feed has been mercilessly mocking Trump for his anti-Mexican remarks and other excesses (and whose Twitter photo shows him with Khizr and Ghazala Khan in Philadelphia), now argues that indirectly Ryan and McConnell might still serve a higher national good.

Guajardo is well connected in Mexican politics; he was involved in the campaign of Mexico’s former president, Felipe Calderon, and then served under Calderon as Mexico’s ambassador to China. (That is where my wife Deb and I became friends with him and his wife Paola; they have also served as guest writers in this space.)

Here is Guajardo’s case for what Ryan and McConnell have done—and could and should do:

When I was in China, I witnessed a lot of things and thought I had seen them before in Mexico. The thought has come back, but this time in the U.S.

A little background: In 2006, President Calderon won the presidency with a vote difference of 0.6 percent. Since before the election day, his leading competitor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known in Mexico as AMLO) had been questioning the validity of the electoral process (even though it was run by an independent agency, approved with unanimous support by all parties, and every voting place had representatives from all major parties).

It was no surprise that AMLO did not concede after his defeat, calling on his followers to engage in civil disobedience, famously saying, “to hell with the institutions.” It was him or bust. His followers did a weeks-long sit-in in Reforma (Mexico City’s major thoroughfare), and his party’s legislators tried to overtake Congress so that Calderon could not be sworn (through complicated maneuvering, Calderon managed to sneak into Congress and be sworn-in as AMLO’s legislators booed).

Fast forward ten years and go to the U.S. Trump is starting to make a case that the election will be rigged. He has NEVER acted big—not in victory, not in hard times, not in tragic times—so I doubt defeat will show us a new side of him. Most likely he’ll claim the election was rigged, fail to concede, and so on.

And here’s how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell can play a bigger role if they keep standing by him.

We have all been dismayed by the lack of spine from Ryan, McConnell, et al in standing up against Trump, disavowing him. They have failed that test and history will judge them accordingly.

Let me now posit a new idea going forward: that they stick by him, endure all the criticism, take all the mud thrown their way for the sole purpose of legitimizing Hillary’s win. They can be the ones who come out on election day and say, “we have been behind our candidate through thick and thin, we have supported him throughout, the people have spoken and HRC will be our next President.” They can only make this claim, they can only legitimize her, if they stand by Trump until the end. If they disavow him now, they will be seen as part of the conspiracy of the elites who rigged this election.

Now, of course Trumpkins don’t care about Ryan, McConnell and all the congressional leadership together. It doesn’t matter. There will always be crazies just like there are now who think Obama is a Muslim Kenyan. What matters is that the leadership, the institutions, function and transfer legitimacy to the winner.

President Calderon had no one in AMLO’s party doing that for him. Ryan and McConnell can do their country a great service if they provide that legitimacy. In order to do so, they have to stick with Trump till the end.

***

For a different perspective on the Ryan-McConnell situation, here’s a reader on the East Coast:

We read now all over the Internet expressions such as one you just made, that Republican leaders who do not dissociate themselves from Donald Trump will “forever share” the “stain” of Trumpism. We see such statements not only from you, but from various right-wing commentators, such as Jennifer Rubin and Michael Gerson.

One wonders, however, what’s really meant. “Forever” is a very long time. Suppose it is November 9, 2016 and Trump has lost heavily, the Democrats have taken the Senate, but the Republicans have kept the House—led by the “forever stained” Paul Ryan. What do you and others, and our major institutions, then do?

Do you refuse to be part of any public meeting at which Trump supporters are present?  Do you continue to denounce them “forever” in your columns?  Do you and others call for them to be treated as pariahs, as your language would imply—and if you do, is there any likelihood that this will occur?  

In short, what sanctions do you see being applied, by anyone, to Trump’s enablers and supporters?  And if no effective sanctions are likely, then what does all this denunciatory language really amount to?

Fair questions. Short answer: No shunning or special status or permanent asterisk. But this is one more choice that will be remembered.

Most people remember who voted which way about the Iraq war. Historians remember who stood where during the civil rights movement—and that, for instance, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas felt he had to balance his “left-wing” criticism of the Vietnam war with right-wing votes against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As President, Dwight Eisenhower finally turned on Joe McCarthy when McCarthy over-reached and began criticizing Ike’s own beloved Army as a den of sedition. (This was the prelude to the famous “have you no sense of decency” showdown between McCarthy and Joseph Welch.) But until then Eisenhower notably looked the other way about McCarthy’s smears. A National Archives essay on “Eisenhower and the Red Menace” describes a memo Eisenhower got from White House staffers at the end of 1953:

Written by two relatively junior staff aides, Stanley Rumbough and Charles Masterton, the memorandum highlighted the costs of appeasing McCarthy and called on the President to take a more openly critical stance on McCarthy. Eisenhower’s failure to challenge or repudiate McCarthy, Rumbough and Masterton wrote, conveyed the impression that he was weak. Taking McCarthy on directly, they argued, might entail some political costs, notably in relations with Congress. But this possible problem would be outweighed by political gains as the public perceived Ike as a “fighter.”

Eisenhower, they noted, held high ground. “He can appeal to the people now as a popular leader who has been attacked. Further, in speaking out against McCarthyism he is on the side of the angels. He can answer McCarthyism in the spirit of fair play and in the very words of the founding fathers, the Bill of Rights, Washington and Lincoln.”

Eisenhower didn’t act that way at the time; that’s one part of a record that is (in my view) generally very admirable. What Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are doing now will be part of their record—although, as Jorge Guajardo suggests, there could be a way they could turn this into a plus.

***

As I type this, Donald Trump is about to speak in Erie, Pennsylvania. By chance, Deb and I visited there briefly last month and are returning for a more serious stint of reporting next week. One of the things we’ll consider is the comparison between Erie as Trump is describing it and how people there see themselves.