Every American has to decide where he or she stands. You can recognize systemic racism, reject the Republican Party’s Trumpization, see beyond partisan squabbles (or minor policy disputes) and boldly embrace consequential change, or you can stick to the “bad apples” canard, mumble about any disagreements with President Trump, stick to “But Gorsuch” rationalizations of the current administration and deny the urgency of meaningful change. No better example of the divide between these two approaches comes from two former Republican secretaries of state — Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Powell, who supported President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, has chosen the path of moral clarity. On CNN’s “State of the Union” he had this exchange:

CNN HOST JAKE TAPPER: And former defense secretary General [Jim] Mattis said — quote — “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people, does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”
It sounds like you agree with that.
POWELL: You have to agree with it.
I mean, look at what he has done to divide us. Forget immigrants, let’s put up a fence in Mexico. Forget this; let’s do this. He is insulting us throughout the world. He is being offensive to our allies. He’s not taking into account what our foreign policy is and how it is being affected by his actions. . . .
And the one word I have to use with respect to what he's been doing for the last several years is a word I would never have used before, I never would have used with any of the four presidents I have worked for: He lies. He lies about things. And he gets away with it, because people will not hold him accountable.
And so, while we're watching him, we need to watch our Congress.
I watched the senators heading into the chamber the other day after all this broke, with the reporters saying, what do you have to say, what do you to say?
They had nothing to say. They would not react. . . .
TAPPER: Why is it so important to you that President Trump not be reelected?
POWELL: Because I think he has been not an effective president.
He lies all the time. He began lying the day of inauguration, when we got into an argument about the size of the crowd that was there. People are writing books about his favorite thing of lying. . . .
So, what we have to do now is reach out to the whole people. Watch these demonstrations, watch these protests and, rather than curse them, embrace them to see what it is we have to do to get out of the situation that we find ourselves in now.
We’re America. We’re Americans. We can do this. We have the ability to do it, and we ought to do it. Make America not just great, but strong and great for all Americans, not just a couple.

Powell indicts not only Trump’s rank dishonesty, racism and ineptness but Republicans’ refusal to do anything about it. His message is clear: Voting to keep Trump in office is antithetical to support for American ideals. He is under no illusion that Trump or his enablers can change. They must be defeated.

Then there was Rice (who, you will recall, supported Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, an inexplicably poor use of her access). Seemingly unable to grasp the political significance of the moment, she gave this naive advice to Trump on CBS’s “Face the Nation”:

RICE: I would ask the president to first and foremost speak in the language of unity, the language of empathy. Not everyone is going to agree with any president, with this president, but you have to speak to every American, not just to those who might agree with you. And you have to speak about the deep wounds that we have and that we’re going to overcome them. I’ve heard the president talk about the resilience of Americans. I’d love to hear more of that. Twitter and tweeting are — are not great ways for complex thoughts, for complex messages. When the president speaks, it needs to be from a place of — of thoughtfulness, from a place of having really honed the message so that it reaches all Americans. And by the way, not just the president. I would love to hear this from our leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle. I would love to hear from mayors and from governors and from others. Leaders at this particular point need to do everything that they can to overcome, not intensify our divisions.
MARGARET BRENNAN: He has mourned George Floyd’s death but he’s used language like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He said his supporters love “the black people.” When you hear phrases like that, how does that land with you? Do you just dismiss it because it’s President Trump?
RICE: Well, no. The president, obviously, the shooting and looting, he said that he didn’t know that historical context. And so I would say think about the historical context before you say something, because it is a deep wound. And the presidency is special in that regard. People look to the Oval Office as we’ve looked to the Oval Office throughout our history for -- for messages, for signals. And as I said, the president has used some language that I’m really very, very much admire, like the resilience of the American people. Just be careful about those messages. I’m not advising the president, but if I were, I would say let’s put tweeting aside for a little bit and -- and talk to us, have a conversation with us. And I think we need that. And I think he can do it.

Rice remains willfully blind to the essence of Trump, to the impossibility of his rising to the occasion. Later in the interview she refused to embrace Mattis’s incontrovertible observation that Trump is the only president in his lifetime who does not even try to unite the country. “Well, look, I have enormous respect for Jim Mattis. And he’s a man of great integrity. He’s a patriot … What I want to speak to is the future and what we do here over the next several months.” Really, is it so hard to condemn what has been among the defining features of the current administration?

Whether crippled by caution or unwilling to give up the lure of access, influence and approval from the right, Rice thoroughly failed to use her position to influence fellow Republicans. On one hand, she speaks as a child of Jim Crow, condemns inequality and warns against use of the military, but she refuses to translate that into the precondition for change, the removal of Trump. She would not even tell us whether she will vote for him. That is a maddening failure of moral leadership. In the fog of unity talk, she winds up giving Trump a pass.

Republicans on the whole have enabled and encouraged Trump, some overtly and some silently. The time for reticence and equivocation is over. It is not sufficient to be against a particular tactic (use of the military) without identifying the person who wields the power to deploy that tactic. It is not enough to mumble when the media asks for a reaction.

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