“Have you no sense of decency?” It’s the question that the members of the Republican majority in the Congress—51 senators, 239 representatives—might bear in mind, in the “shithole” era.
If only two of those senators would stand up against Donald Trump, with their votes rather than just their tweets or concerned statements, they would constitute an effective majority.
With the 49 Democratic and independent senators, these two would make 51 votes, which in turn would be enough to authorize real investigations. They could pass a formal resolution of censure. They could call for tax returns and financial disclosure. They could begin hearings, on the model of the nationally televised Watergate hearings of 45 years ago.
They could behave as if they took seriously their duties to hold the executive branch accountable. They could make a choice they know will be to their credit when this era enters history — as did the Republicans who finally turned against their own party’s President Nixon during the Watergate drama, as did the Democrats who finally turned against their own party’s President Johnson over the Vietnam war, as did the Republicans who finally turned against their own poisonous Senator McCarthy in the episode that gave rise to “Have you no sense of decency?” more than 60 years ago. They could spare themselves the shame that history attaches to people who did the wrong thing, or nothing, or kept looking the other way during those decisive periods.
(I’m not even talking about the House, where the GOP has a larger majority, where there’s never been as much talk about “world’s greatest deliberative body,” and where the main outlet for Republican concerns about this era in politics has been the rapidly growing list of incumbents deciding to retire rather than run again.)
Even without the House, just two senators could make an enormous difference.
- Two like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker who are not running for re-election and have no primary-challenge consequences to fear;
- Two like Orrin Hatch and John McCain who mainly have their places in history to think about;
- Two like the young Ben Sasse and the veteran Lamar Alexander who pride themselves on being “thoughtful”;
- Two like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski who pride themselves on being “independent”;
- Two like Rand Paul and Mike Lee who pride themselves on their own kind of independence;
- Two like Rob Portman and John Barrasso who pride themselves on being decent;
- Two like Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton with conceivable long-term higher-office hopes;
- Two like Tim Scott and James Lankford who jointly wrote a statement on the need for broad-minded inclusion;
- Two like Chuck Grassley and Richard Shelby, who like Hatch and McCain are in their 80s and conceivably have “legacy” on their minds (remember that in the Alabama Senate race Shelby took a stand against his party’s odious nominee, Roy Moore);
- One like Dean Heller, facing a tough re-election race, plus maybe Lindsey Graham, who used to be among the leaders in blunt talk about Trump’s excesses.
If any of these two, or some other pair from the thirty-plus remaining Republicans, decided to take a stand, they would not change everything about this perilous moment in politics. But they would do something, about the open secret of a destructive presidency that nearly all of their colleagues are aware of and virtually none is doing anything about.
They could remind their colleagues of the Senate’s appropriate check-and-balance function.
And they could spare themselves, in history’s perspective, the question Joseph Welch so memorably asked the rampaging Senator Joe McCarthy, during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.
From the Senate’s own historical site:
As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy's career:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness." When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"
Have you no sense of decency? It is a question worth pondering, in the shithole era.