American politics is now caught in an odd and dangerous form of escalation.
The cycle begins with President Trump engaging in some form of divisive prejudice, either out of calculation or compulsion. (A group of elected, progressive women of color, say, should “go back” to their hellhole countries of origin.) There is a public outcry, including from some morally offended members of the media. Elected Republicans then blame the media for ideological bias and not focusing on “real” issues. Then Trump, either out of political calculation or personal compulsion, doubles down on bigotry. (“I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country.”) Another outcry ensues . . .
What is the damage? Well, if you believe that constructive leadership can elevate, it follows that irresponsible leadership can debase. Particularly in a democracy, political rhetoric has high stakes. A politician can either side with the angels or unleash the beast.
Trump’s reelection strategy is clearly beast liberation. And this has implications for his political followers, who must abandon morality or rationality or both.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is a case in point. Based on her considerable political skills, Cheney, a daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, has risen rapidly to the third-highest leadership position in the House Republican caucus. It is her great misfortune, however, to have become a GOP leader during the Trump era.
Being in the leadership of a caucus brings complications even in normal political times. It generally requires public fidelity to the party’s official line. And this can involve a venial type of political deception: feigning enthusiasm for policies and arguments a leader would not normally embrace. It is a requirement of being part of the team.
But Cheney’s recent performance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” illustrates how difficult that membership on Trump’s team has become. Under close questioning, she admitted that the chants of “send her back” at a Trump political rally were “absolutely wrong” and “should not have happened.” But since the chant is a variant of Trump’s own words, Cheney could not admit why this was wrong without indicting the original author. She was left to insist that Trump’s words were ideologically rather than racially motivated — a case of bad manners rather than evidence of a corrupt heart. But Trump did not tell the congresswomen to go to hell; he told them to “go home” to a foreign country (though three members of the group were born in the United States). Then the president added that the four lawmakers are not “capable” of loving America. These elements are what turns an ideological attack into a nativist and racist attack by any reasonable standard.
Having abandoned both logic and principle, Cheney fell back to a last redoubt of denial. “We are focused on policy,” she said, “and we will continue to do that no matter what the mainstream media attempts to do.” But when has the president shown the slightest interest in policy? And why, exactly, would the political world be focused on racist tweets if Trump had not repeatedly tweeted them?
These justifications are no longer the typical, venial deceptions required by party loyalty. In this case, loyalty requires mortal lies that effectively excuse racial prejudice. In this case, Republican leaders are shilling for a bigot.
Trump sorts other politicians into two categories: enemies or servants. And he defines service as a willingness to defend his most offensive actions and attributes — with enthusiasm and on television. One by one, Republican leaders have faced a choice between keeping the president’s favor and maintaining their own integrity. Only a few — a very few — have chosen the better and more difficult path.
Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan’s reputation, for example, was deeply damaged by his service under Trump. Ryan — whatever his intentions — sent a message that the wealth of the country is a “real” issue, while the character of the country is a sideshow. But what brand of conservatism would elevate wealth above rectitude, decency and concern for the common good? Ryan’s accommodation of Trump’s worst instincts eventually became a form of ideological surrender — replacing the gospel of equal opportunity with an angry creed of white identity.
In the Trump era, Republican leaders generally suffer from a kind of moral stunting. By defending the malicious impulses of a petty and prejudiced mind, they lose their credibility and their dignity. They become inured to things that should shock and offend them. And they forget something foundational: There is no definition of honorable public service that includes dishonoring the deepest values of the nation.