If only public figures’ fear of the judgment of history outweighed their appetite for power in the present.
Throughout Donald Trump’s rise, rule and continuing domination of the nation’s political stage, I’ve often wondered at the many high-ranking Republican actors who have come to be his Greek chorus. They know what a con man he is, what a loser he is. And they must know they’re on the wrong side of history, kowtowing to an antidemocratic man who will go down as the worst U.S. president ever.
These Republicans are not dumb — heck, some even have Ivy League diplomas.
Take Sen. Ted Cruz. The smarmy Texan (Princeton, Harvard Law) once condemned Trump, aptly, as “a pathological liar,” “utterly amoral” and “a narcissist.” This week, Trump put a Cruz comment at the top of a list of quotes in a 2024 campaign email titled “Republicans Show United Support for President Trump” after his fourth criminal indictment.
“Every time bad news comes out about Hunter or Joe Biden,” Cruz said, “you can set a stopwatch & within hours, some clown goes & indicts Donald Trump again.”
Right, and the dozens of grand jurors who returned the indictments are in on Democrats’ ruse? And also the brave Republicans who’ve provided evidence against Trump, under oath?
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Cruz knows better. But it’s all part of the Trumpian con. Cruz and other faux populists pretend that they champion average Americans against the elites, when actually they’re playing conservative voters for fools.
History will not be kind. Trouble is, too many Republicans’ fear of history’s verdict is offset by their terror of Trump’s wrath now. The unshakable MAGA loyalty of roughly a third of Republican voters means Trump’s denunciation can doom his critics in Republican primaries, and has.
Even so, I’m flummoxed that more elected and party officials still won’t turn against the execrable Trump.
People drawn to play a role in politics tend to be students of the subject, I’ve found over years of reporting on them. Most Republicans know that history’s heroes are those who stand on principle, even at the risk of losing or forfeiting elective office. So why choose to be unheroic — even villainous, juries might find?
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A modern-day John F. Kennedy could find enough Republicans to write a new edition of “Profiles in Courage.” But its subjects wouldn’t be the once-Grand Old Party’s national leaders or most of the Republicans running against Trump now.
Instead, the heroes are formerly obscure, lower-level Republicans across the nation. Many have endured personal abuse, even death threats, and career setbacks for their anti-Trump, pro-democracy stands, sometimes despite direct pressure from the man himself. Their heroism is clear in the record against Trump contained in the indictments in Manhattan, Washington, Atlanta and south Florida, and in the final report of the House Jan. 6 committee — welcome profiles in courage among the sordid stories of Trump and his indicted and unindicted co-conspirators.
Among them: Former Republican Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, run out of Congress for putting country over party. Former Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, also defeated after resisting Trump’s coup attempt in his state. Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and election official Gabriel Sterling. Stalwart local officials in other swing states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy were shaken enough after Jan. 6 to castigate Trump for a minute. But they came to define cowardice, not courage — McCarthy by his overt groveling, McConnell by his silence. As Georgia’s Sterling once said, “If you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some!”
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Like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. He defied Trump after the 2020 election and pounced Tuesday when Trump claimed that on Monday, he would reveal “irrefutable” evidence of voting fraud in the state.
“The 2020 election in Georgia was not stolen,” Kemp posted on the site formerly known as Twitter. “For nearly three years now, anyone with evidence of fraud has failed to come forward — under oath — and prove anything in a court of law. Our elections in Georgia are secure, accessible, and fair and will continue to be as long as I am governor. The future of our country is at stake in 2024 and that must be our focus.”
I’d prefer a more frontal attack, but is Kemp’s example so hard to follow? Apparently so for all the quislings seeking to protect their own political hides by kissing Trump’s. Yet history’s early verdicts against them are already being written.
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Stuart Stevens, a strategist for George W. Bush’s and Sen. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, wrote this week, “I helped elect Republican governors or Senators in half the country. … By remaining silent or supporting Trump, they became part of a conspiracy to end democracy. They failed America & that will be their legacy.”
The Bulwark, a site created by “Never Trump” Republicans, has issued a masterful small book and podcast series tracing what it calls the “corruption” of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in morphing from Trump scourge (2015: “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot”) to sycophant in chief. And on PBS NewsHour this week, former federal Judge J. Michael Luttig, a conservative legal icon who ashamedly counts Cruz among his former law clerks, told Judy Woodruff, “It has been the Republicans who have reprehensibly failed us as Americans.”
History is written by the victors, it’s said. As worrisome as our current moment seems, we can hope that democracy and the rule of law will triumph over the threat from Trump and his cohorts.
And then future generations will read all about it.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.