The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How history is made: Not everyone hops off the sinking ship at once

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in Washington on March 19. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The temptation to declare a single story line — “Republicans stick with Trump!” or “Republicans abandon Trump!” — is overwhelming. We crave simplicity and clarity; partisans crave confirmation of their assessment of events. That is not reality, not how change happens and not how history works.

American politics and history does not operate on unanimity. Change happens at the margins, often in the wake of events that capture public imagination and take us beyond politics to culture, values and faith. There is plenty of evidence, if you want to find it, of Republicans refusing to budge. See Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), whose overt incitement to violence shows the problems in the right will not vanish with President Trump’s departure. Or Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who blocked anti-lynching legislation on the day of George Floyd’s memorial service. Right-wing talk show hosts and careerist pundits are also sticking by Trump (no surprise, given that their audience and, therefore, their income comes from Trump’s base).

The question, however, is not whether every Republican abandons Trump, but whether the ground is noticeably shifting. Does anyone imagine it is simply coincidence that high-ranking military officials current and past this week spoke to their oath to the Constitution, not to Trump, in speaking out against unleashing weapons of war on civilians?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), had not announced her qualms about voting for Trump before this week. (As Murkowski told reporters: “When I saw General Mattis’s comments yesterday, I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”) Police were not kneeling, dancing with and praying with anti-police brutality activists before this week. Before this week, Trump had not constructed an ugly reinforced metal fence around the White House, turning it into one big bunker.

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Freedom House, which usually excoriates foreign dictators, now asks the world to focus on the White House and condemns conduct akin to that of “Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan [which] use military forces and tactics to silence the voices of legitimate dissent”:

“Protesters’ demands for justice and protection from abuse are legitimate, and their right to assemble peacefully should not be curtailed,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The alarming escalation and militarization of the law enforcement response to many demonstrations is antithetical to our nation’s long-standing values. The excessive force used to stop or disperse protests in numerous cities across the United States is deeply disturbing.”
“We are seriously concerned that the administration has erected 10-foot-high fences around the White House and Lafayette Park, and that law enforcement officials continue to expand the perimeter,” Abramowitz continued. “The freedom for citizens to gather in front of the White House to make their voices heard has been a hallmark of our democracy for centuries and should be maintained.”
“The deployment of heavily armed police in tactical gear, with no names, badge numbers, or insignia, is highly problematic. Law enforcement officers and agencies must be accountable to the citizens they serve. The administration is allowing them to operate in anonymity and with impunity, offering tacit encouragement for abuses against lawful protesters.”

We are seeing a shift in polling. Former vice president Joe Biden is essentially tied with Trump — in Texas. The presumptive Democratic nominee leads by double digits in multiple national polls. We see hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets.

Something is changing. Whether 1 percent or 10 percent of Republicans abandon Trump (by offering public criticism, or endorsing Biden, or simply refusing to vote for Trump’s reelection) is yet to be determined. (Simply increasing Democratic turnout in November by a few points could produce a landslide, by the way.) Not everyone will jump ship at once. Some Republicans will disclaim responsibility for support only if and when Trump loses.

That is how things change — incrementally, unevenly. Indeed, it is remarkable that all of what I described has happened since Monday. There is a market for cynical insistence that nothing matters and that no one is persuadable. Some on the left are eager to scoff at recent Republican allies; many Republicans are eager to believe the status quo holds. But cynicism in this case requires denial and moral blindness. The truth is that a significant, rapid shift in public sentiment that goes beyond partisan politics is underway. This is how history is made.

Police are assaulting journalists covering the George Floyd protests. We used to condemn this in other countries. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: CNN/The Washington Post)

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