Dread stalks the Oval Office and overcomes anyone who approaches the ironically named Resolute Desk in Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” a nonfiction Gothic tale of the haunting of the White House. They all but tremble before President Trump, fearing his temper, his enormous and unfathomable ignorance, his obsessions and his Category 5 dishonesty. But there, on Page 248, is the reason the Republican Party may lose control of Congress and sink, deservedly, into political irrelevance. Meet the gutless Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
The speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader have, for the most part, set aside their revulsion of Trump and instead heeded the political winds in their own party, swallowing their objections and, thus, their pride. They have on rare occasion spoken up, but the effort so drained their shallow store of integrity that all we can hear now is the sucking sound of two consciences on empty.
This brings us to Aug. 11-12, 2017, when an ecumenical collection of bigots — anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic — marched in Charlottesville . Counterdemonstrators countered and, in the melee, one of them was fatally run over by a white nationalist. Trump responded by saying one thing and then another, and wound up referring to the “very fine people on both sides.” The very fine Nazis and very fine white nationalists and very fine members of the Ku Klux Klan were understandably grateful. Much of the rest of the country was just as understandably appalled.
Ryan and McConnell were in the latter group. So were a parcel of esteemed corporate executives. They rebuked the president for being so considerate of Nazis, neo- or otherwise, and the president responded by disbanding the White House advisory board to which the executives belonged — once they had decided to dissolve it themselves. McConnell and Ryan, their backs up, entered the fray. “Both Republicans called some of the CEOs and privately praised them,” Woodward writes. (The italics are my own.)
There you have it. The chief executives stuck their necks out, and the leaders of the Republican Party, who would gladly comment on the opening of a firehouse, could not bring themselves to publicly praise them.
The Republican Party is in bad shape. The prognosis for the midterm elections is not good for it. The economy is booming, unemployment is about as low as it can get, and inflation remains oddly meek. Yet, none of this seems to be enough. For one thing, the tweetaholic in the White House seems intent on diverting attention to himself and his moral and ethical squalor. He cannot stay on message unless the message is himself. For the GOP, this is not good. Trump is the Harvey Weinstein of American politics.
I choose the disgraced Hollywood mogul, ground zero of the #MeToo movement, for a reason. Women are abandoning the Republican Party for its adoration of the piggish Trump, its insistence that a woman’s body is not her own and its tolerance of intolerant cultural figures. Blacks, who have a dissenting view of “very fine” Klansmen, and Hispanics, who might feel that not all Mexicans are rapists, are feeling no different. Among women, Trump has an approval rate of only 29 percent in the latest CNN poll; among nonwhites, it’s 19 percent.
Those dismal polling numbers apply to Trump, not to the Republican Party in general. But Trump has become the party. He’s replaced Thomas Nast’s elephant as its symbol. The president’s ugly tics are mirrored by his party. They are now one on immigration, trade, tax benefits for the rich, hostility to minority groups, a grope-friendly approach to women’s issues and a weakness for conspiracy theories — the foreign birth of Barack Obama, the treason of Benghazi or anything to do with the Clintons, clearly the most felonious couple since Bonnie and Clyde.
The leaders of the party know better. But out of fear of repercussions from ideological droolers, they mostly fail to distinguish themselves from Trump. They have allowed Republican principles — free trade, abhorrence of debt, etc. — to atrophy, possibly thinking they will revive them when Trump is gone.
The Democratic Party once had an analogous dilemma: a Southern wing so recalcitrant on race that it even refused to make lynching a federal crime. But it did have Northern liberals and Midwestern progressives, and so one could remain a Democrat and still retain some pride. The GOP, in contrast, is presenting just one face to the voters — Trump’s. The party is unified — like lemmings about to hurl themselves into the sea.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.