Supporting Trump: The GOP's Equivalent of the Iraq War Vote

Jonathan Erns / 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 Time Capsule thread (now up to #66), I’ve been chronicling some of the ongoing words, deeds, and gestures that the Republican party has decided to swallow from its nominee. This parallel “Trump Nation” thread is mainly for reader reaction to the spectacle of 2016, and in particular what the “responsible” GOP is showing about itself.

Trump himself is beyond criticism or judgment. What we see is who he is. But I think that people looking back at our time will be much harsher in their judgment of the Republican “leaders” who are trying to have it both ways.

The Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader of the Senate, senators like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, governors like Chris Christie and the now-trapped Mike Pence, figures from the past like Rudy Giuliani — every one of these people knows what is wrong with Donald Trump, and every one of them will be telling us as of November 9 that they were never really with him, they always saw what was wrong, how did this ever happen? But for now, every one one of them is saying, Vote for Trump!

You can understand, sort of, their constraint. If they come out and say, Vote for Hillary Clinton, in the short run they might infuriate substantial portions of their own electoral base. And if the longer run, if she does win, then every “liberal” thing she does, starting with her Supreme Court appointments, can be thrown back at them. Oh, there’s your President Clinton with her Bolshevik on the Court. Happy now? Oh, there’s your President Clinton, with …

You can understand it. But to say it’s “understandable” is not to say that it’s right, or even smart. I think they’re making a mistake not just from some lofty historical perspective but in how they will look in the relatively near future. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination eight years ago, and the vastly better known Hillary Clinton did not, because she had joined most senior members of her party (including Joe Biden and John Kerry) in being wrong in a hugely consequential choice, the Iraq war, and Obama had been right.

A reader says you can extend that analysis to the choice of backing Trump:

As I’ve watched the way that Trump has been able to overcome unforced error after unforced error that should, and used to, effectively mean the end of a viable campaign, I’m interested in the box that this puts the GOP elite.  Most seem to be trying to thread the needle in the Paul Ryan mode—I support the nominee, but I speak out not too forcefully on the most egregious statements.  

What we may be seeing is the real-time development of another Bush Iraq War moment. In this scenario, it will seem obvious to anyone after an easy win by Clinton that they should have publicly called out Trump and said they were bound by conscience not to support him.

This raises an interesting question.  In this scenario, who takes the role of Obama, who got used his anti-war position to jump start his road to the White House?  It was a huge risk for a little known Senator, but the payoff was huuuuuuuge!

Right now you can probably rule out the Bushes or Romney or just about every elected GOP bigwig. Does it just leave Kasich?

Or, with all his complications, Cruz.

***

A reader in the Midwest makes a related point:

I have followed with great interest the chronicling of the Trump campaign for the historical record. My question to you is this: Is there any integrity left in the Republican party?

I have waited for months for one prominent Republican with real “skin in the game” to step up and say something and take a stand. Something along this line: “You know that I am a Republican, but I am an American first. And as an American, I cannot and will not support the nominee of our party. He is not qualified to be President of this country. If this costs me my position, so be it. Some things are more important!”

Is it too much to ask for just one person to have the balls to do this? And if it is too much, what does this say about our country?

***

A reader who has worked in Republican politics defends John McCain, who has condemned Trump’s statements but so far not Trump himself:

My own opinion is doing anything you can to defeat Trump and hold his enablers accountable is one’s a moral imperative as an American, an acid test of one’s character.  

That said you know that life is a balancing act and McCain is trying to win a GOP primary is a state with a hard-right GOP electorate. Have to give him a little latitude.  Also suspect that’s why he included this line, “...which I will have to answer at the Final Judgment...”— he knows it’s an acid test he's failing and will have to answer for, and it’s weighing on him.  

This reader goes on to say that the Republicans who should be judged most harshly are those who are not up for re-election themselves this year (unlike McCain) but are still riding the Trump Train.

***

From a lawyer on the West Coast:

I thought your term “Vichy Republican” was quite apt. I say this because I was recently watching the Ophuls documentary about France under the Nazi Occupation The Sorrow and the Pity. It does a masterful job of drawing out people on why they decided to resist or collaborate.

One thing that strikes me how many conservatives in 1940 France felt that “well, better Hitler than Blum.” Leon Blum being France’s first Jewish prime minister, who served at the head of a left-wing government in the period 1936-1938.  It just sounds a lot like the praise many conservatives of like Trump and Farange have for Putin and disdain for Obama …

***

A brief note on a potential silver lining:

Wouldn’t it be great if the Khans, Muslim-Americans, became the moral conscience of the nation during this election, with their dignity and eloquence and compassion?

***

And, finally for now, a much longer and more downbeat assessment:

It is becoming blatantly clear to me that the GOP is failing in one of its principal roles as a major political party: To filter out those elements which, at their root, would destroy those organic mechanisms which keep our democracy functioning.

Given how blatant and ever-increasingly obvious is the nature of Trump, why is it so hard for the country to realize what he represents?  Why did not our national immune system immediately recognize him for who/what he is and spit him out? The answer is that Ryan and McConnell and the Vichy Republicans, are validating Trump’s legitimacy, and have reneged on their fundamental duty leading a major political party.

And the GOP’s decay in performing this duty has been advancing for the last 20 years. In today’s NY Times, Lindsay Graham was quoted as saying in reference to Trump’s comments about the Khans,

“This is going to a place where we’ve never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen. There used to be some things that were sacred in American politics — that you don’t do — like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier, even if they criticize you,” Graham said.

At last! A Republican willing to say “YOU JUST CAN'T SAY SUCH THINGS!!”  And here's the thing:  It might have started sooner, perhaps Nixon, perhaps Goldwater; but in my mind it started with Newt Gingrich and the ‘94 Republicans who took power and dismantled the structural protections in Congress which fostered comity and collegiality among adversaries. Since that time, establishment Republicans started saying and doing things that political norms dictated that YOU JUST DON’T DO!  

Before that time, no matter how awful the opponent’s policies, the opponent was, nevertheless, a worthy adversary, chosen by worthy citizens who, despite your fervent disagreement with them, were your countrymen.  And starting in ‘94, establishment Republicans started disrespecting the elected representatives of the opposing party. And at that point, they moved from governing to open warfare. And each new incremental move into previously forbidden territory brought new standards of indecency and disrespect; to the point where the honor and patriotism of a proven, decorated war hero (John Kerry), the citizenship and faith of an elected president (Obama), the honor and patriotism of a former POW (McCain), and the fundamental integrity and worth of Congressional institutions (filibuster etc.), were all barriers which it is now acceptable to disregard. Things you just didn’t do, they did.

In a quick Google session I was unable to determine who first said it, but I’ve heard it attributed to Jung, that civilization is a thin veneer. We take for granted that the glue holding this democracy together is only as strong as the willingness of the participants to honor the glue. It’s remarkable how few people it would take to disregard the white lane markings of our highways and turn traffic into a snarl. We function because of our consensus that there are just some things that YOU DO NOT SAY, and there are just some things that YOU DO NOT DO. And since 1994, at least, the GOP, with very little assistance from the Democrats, has been saying and doing non-normative things; and this has empowered a large number of people to say and do non-normative things as a result.

The country depends on its political parties to scrub out the infectious elements; to make sure that, whatever candidates are put forward, at the root they will put the institutions and the norms that provide the glue for our democracy ahead of their ideological and power questing goals. I wonder how graciously GW Bush/Cheney would have responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2000 had it gone the other way. And in the subsequent Congress, I wonder how graciously the Republicans would have allowed a President Gore to function had the result gone the other way. I wonder how normative the Republican response would have been had 9/11 happened on the watch of a Democratic president. Oh. Wait. BENGHAZI!!!!!

The GOP no longer puts the country, its institutions and its norms, ahead of party. And McConnell and Ryan and the Vichy Republicans are glaring truth of the long road down which they've come. Thank you, and Mr. and Mrs. Khan, for directly calling them out. We need the GOP.  We need a functioning, filtering, democracy glue-enhancing GOP. We haven’t had one since it started decaying during the first Clinton administration.

And what will happen when, the next time they nominate a candidate, they manage to hide the things that makes Trump so obvious? THAT’s what scares me most ...