Lucy and her football have nothing on President Trump. Just as surely as she pulls the ball away from Charlie Brown, sending him skyward and crashing flat on his back, Trump repeatedly lures his apologists into cooing about his new “presidential” voice and rationalizing his absurdities. And each and every time, he leaves them humiliated, flat on their backs.
A week ago at the State of the Union Trump declared, “Tonight, I call upon on all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people. This is really the key. These are the people we were elected to serve. … All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family, can do anything. We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag.” Reaching across the aisle! Offering an open hand! Monday, as the stock market was tumbling, Trump sneered at Democrats who did not swoon over his State of the Union address. “They were like death. And un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.” Splat! There goes another gang of Trump apologists. (Now, after media outlets and Democratic office-holders have blasted his language, the White House claims it was all a “joke,” the administration’s most overused and ineffective tactic when defending the indefensible.)
Some Republicans will ignore the remarks; others will scream at the media for covering them. Others will rationalize it. As of this writing, there has been little pushback from the GOP. Republicans’ refusal to call out the most base language, the language of dictators, confirms their capitulation — political and moral — to Trump. (These are the same people who insist Republicans cannot be tarred with a broad brush in 2018 because they don’t share Trump’s racist, xenophobic and anti-democratic views.)
We are certain that had President Barack Obama said anything remotely like that, the right would have called him a tyrant, a divider, a betrayer of democratic principles. Obama in his 2016 State of the Union chided — without mentioning names — “voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.” Over that, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) went ballistic: “This president has been the single most divisive figure this country has had over the last decade.” A year out of office, Obama was still the subject of hysterical complaints. Rick Santorum last year whined, “Barack Obama deeply offended me. He deeply offended the people in the crowd because he spoke down to them. He didn’t try to elevate them. He was morally condescending, calling people bigots and racists, people of faith, calling them out for their religious beliefs. You don’t know how agitated that base got with Barack Obama.”
But let’s be clear: Obama never accused political opponents of “treason.” No president in memory has — because that sort of talk is so beyond acceptable discourse that it is fair to call it un-American. Where are the Republicans now — the ones who insisted their motives not be impugned by a Democratic president, who derided Obama’s assumption that their motives were partisan and who warned that a president’s words matter? They’ve become apologists for a president who sounds like a tinpot dictator and who trashes perhaps the cardinal principle of a democracy — namely, the right to oppose and criticize those in power.
Trump’s defenders have scoffed at critics who cite Trump’s attack on the free press, the courts and even the notion of objective reality. They’ve decried an investigation into the president’s cooperation with Russians, of which there is substantial evidence he was willing to receive help from a hostile power. (“He at least tacitly collaborated with a foreign-intelligence operation against his country — sometimes in full public view,” write Ben Wittes and Jonathan Rauch. “This started during the campaign, when he called upon the Russians to steal and release his opponent’s emails, and has continued during his presidency, as he equivocates on whether foreign intervention occurred and smears intelligence professionals who stand by the facts.”) And now Trump’s devoted followers are content to allow him to call Democrats treasonous for not applauding their Great Leader.
During the campaign, Trump fans ridiculed concerns that he was undemocratic and prone to demonstrate an unhealthy affection for authoritarianism and autocratic leaders, most especially Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Now as he confirms the worst of those fears, Republicans wave off evidence of Trump’s undemocratic and, yes, anti-American rhetoric.
If you believe in the rule of law, democratic norms and institutions and decent public debate, Republicans must pay a heavy, heavy price for indulging Trump. I am compelled to agree with Wittes and Rauch: “The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold.” (That’s small “d” democratic.) Whether you think the GOP is salvageable or not, to reelect this crew in the midterms is to complete the capitulation to Trump’s anti-democratic brand of politics. All Americans are compelled to stop this.