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How will history judge Donald Trump’s GOP supporters?

Why I'm pessimistic that history will judge Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio all that harshly.

This is the Victorian home of the late Sen. Robert A. Taft in Georgetown. According to the 1953 photo caption, after Taft’s death, the residence was for sale for $70,000. (AP)

Donald Trump continues to utter incendiary sarcastic comments, and his poll numbers continue to crater even in reliably GOP states. As members of Congress get more and more nervous, many people are asking what will happen to the politicians who enabled and supported Donald Trump during his toxic run for president. I’m not talking about has-been sycophants like Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson or Chris Christie, but rather those currently holding political power. Mitch McConnell and Paul D. Ryan and Marco Rubio have made it clear that they disagree with Trump on certain issues, but nonetheless have endorsed him for president. Mike Pence has agreed to be Trump’s vice president. How will history judge them?

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence said on Thursday that comments Donald Trump made about President Obama and Hillary Clinton and the Islamic State were "semantics." (Video: The Washington Post)

Beginning with when Trump went after the Khan family, the comparisons between Trump and Sen. Joe McCarthy have become more overt. James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic, “The accumulation of Trump’s offenses should increasingly shame the ‘respectable’ Republicans standing up for him. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, this starts with you.” He then went on to quote Joseph Welch’s historic confrontation with McCarthy.

So, in the future, if Ryan, McConnell and others cling to Trump until Election Day, will they pay a price? I’m pretty confident that the answer is no.

As Corey Robin has observed, many powerful Republicans enabled McCarthy for a long time before he imploded.

In the four years prior to this confrontation, McCarthy had been riding high. Not merely among the rubes and the yahoos of the Commie-fearing hinterland, but at the highest levels of the Republican Party. McCarthy, as Robert Griffith showed many years ago, was the party’s useful idiot, even darling. No one made the case better than he that the Democrats were the party of 20 years of treason. It was for that reason that he was favored by the party pooh-bahs and the party faithful.

Elsewhere, Robin has observed that Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft, the senator from Ohio, was perfectly fine with bolstering McCarthy in his early years:

As early as March 23, 1950 — four weeks after McCarthy’s famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia — Taft gave McCarthy his firm support, telling McCarthy, “If one case [accusing a State Department official of being a Red] doesn’t work out, bring up another.” And added, for good measure, “Keep it up, Joe.”

Seven years after that — and only three years after McCarthy imploded — Taft was one of the heroic subjects of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.”

Now there are excellent reasons Taft is valorized in Kennedy’s book and even more so in contemporary history. But my point is that Taft enabled McCarthy back in the day, and history seems to be judging him rather kindly.

History will likely treat Mitt Romney in a similar fashion. In this cycle, Romney has been fiercely#NeverTrump, but in the 2012 cycle, he eagerly sought Trump’s endorsement despite the hotelier’s obsession with Barack Obama’s citizenship status. Ted Cruz chose not to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, but remember this tweet?

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is furiously trying to make up for lost time by criticizing Trump more than he was enabling him during the primary season.

When Trump gets thumped, the most powerful Republicans left will be Ryan and McConnell, and they’ll have to deal as much with backlash from Trump supporters as from his critics. They will be able to bring up examples of when they criticized the GOP nominee during this election cycle. And because someone will need to represent the GOP on television and in the corridors of power, they will win back some of the legitimacy that they have squandered in this election cycle.

So for those of you thinking that Trump’s downfall will also bring down the GOP officials who have stood by him, think again. I suspect that history will not be as harsh of a judge as you think.