The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican revisionist history on Trump is already being written

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The Greek philosopher Diogenes supposedly walked the streets of Athens carrying a lantern in the daytime; when asked why, he said he was looking, without success, for an honest man. Had you transported him to Washington today and told him to wander among the members of the Republican Party, Diogenes would have no more luck.

But as they face the very real possibility that their corrupt bargain with President Trump will end in political catastrophe, they’re starting to get worried about how they’ll be judged in a post-Trump world. So the revisionist history is already beginning. To “We don’t think judges should be political” and “We’ll protect preexisting conditions,” you can add “I never liked Donald Trump anyway.”

As The Post’s Jacqueline Alemany reports, people still working for Trump are worried about getting jobs in the future. One campaign staffer told her, “There’s just that stigma of being a Trump person.”

So how do you avoid the stigma? It’s not too early to start. Consider Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who may run for president in 2024. The Washington Examiner obtained a tape of a recent conference call Sasse did with constituents, in which he unloaded on Trump in a way no other congressional Republican has, at least not yet.

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“I don’t think the way he’s led through covid has been reasonable or responsible, or right,” Sasse said, and complained about how Trump “kisses dictators’ butts.” Here’s more from Sasse:

The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. [...] He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.

All true, of course. But we should note that when Sasse was facing the possibility of a primary challenge from the right, he muted his occasional criticisms of Trump and was rewarded with an endorsement from the president; only now, with his own reelection a certainty, is he speaking so freely.

Also note that this wasn’t a private meeting with a handful of donors or party operatives. It was a conference call with constituents, which he surely knew might find its way to the media.

Consider the contrast with Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who was asked in a debate this week whether Trump is a moral and ethical person. “Yes,” Gardner replied, hastening to add, “I wish he could be more specific in his communications with the American people.”

Awkward formulation aside, Gardner was attempting to fall back on a common Republican rationalization when asked about Trump’s monstrousness. They usually say something like “I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much,” which is supposed to allow them to sound a little bit scolding without criticizing Trump in any meaningful way, as though the problem with him is just a few errant tweets.

So is Sasse more honest than Gardner? Not in the least. Both are simply adapting to the situations they find themselves in. Gardner is probably going to lose, but if he alienates Trump supporters, he’ll definitely lose. Sasse, on the other hand, has what Gardner doesn’t: the freedom to position himself for the post-Trump era.

He’s betting that the greatest advantage for a Republican in the next few years will be found in claiming to have been part of the team on whatever the party decides it still likes about this period in its history — such as stonewalling Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, lying about why they were doing it, and then jamming Amy Coney Barrett through — while also saying you found Trump personally repugnant.

The assumption is that Trump will not only lose this election but lose badly, and the worse that loss turns out to be, the more the party will want to distance itself from him. A blowout election — especially one that delivers the Senate into Democratic hands — will forever mark Trump as a loser whose stench Republicans will want to rid themselves of.

So from ambitious Republicans, we’re likely to see an expansion of that “I wish he would stop tweeting” critique into something broader, but still carefully calibrated. They’ll say he screwed up the pandemic, and they didn’t like his racism and sexism or his personal corruption. They’ll watch their constituents closely to determine the least dangerous criticisms, and what things they should avoid saying.

And if Trump is indeed on his way to defeat, he’s going down in a blaze of lunacy that will give people like Sasse more latitude to criticize him later.

Sasse said something else on that call that was revealing, in which he predicted what the internal Republican debate will be about Trump.

“The debate is not going to be, ‘Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump?’” he said. “It’s going to be, ‘What the heck were any of us thinking, that selling a TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?’ ”

If that’s your prediction — and it seems like a good one — then the best thing to do is get on the front end of it right now, before anyone else has. And as Sasse knows, there’s nothing political reporters love more than intraparty conflict. Which means that he can get lots of attention and be remembered as the first important elected Republican in Washington to really stick it to Trump.

But all that clever positioning shouldn’t make us forget the truth: Though most of them will deny it, just about the entire Republican Party was with Trump every step of the way. The fact that the rats are starting to abandon the sinking ship now doesn’t change what they did and who they are.

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