by Neil H. Buchanan
Every now and then -- okay, almost every day -- I join thousands (if not millions) of people around the world in asking the same question: "What is it that makes Republicans so subservient to Donald Trump?" There are facile answers, which I plan to rehash below before moving to something potentially more interesting, but it is nothing short of astonishing that we still have no answer to that very basic question.
After all, Trump was (we remind ourselves for the umpteenth time) not a Republican power player for most of his life. Indeed, he was not even a Republican. Yes, he has long held various views that overlapped with many key components of Republican orthodoxy, but even in his racism, he refused to play the nod-and-wink game that Republicans had perfected with their Southern Strategy's more genteel expression of bigotry.
All old news, of course. Every time some new outrage comes along, however, we are treated to a fresh round of "What are they thinking?" questions about Republicans. Now, faced with the biggest controversy yet and a possible impeachment vote and Senate trial, we are back where we have been many times before, with Republicans holding the line and the rest of us asking why they -- even faced with all this -- still will not stand up against Trump.
In this column, I will not provide an answer to that question. I will, however, offer what I at least hope will be some semi-entertaining analysis of what we know about the supposedly horrific consequences that Republicans face when they go rogue. The bottom line is that, unless there is a story that no one is reporting, the Republicans' spinelessness against Trump is simply impossible to excuse.
Looking at Thesaurus.com under "wimp," the four best synonyms in this context are: coward, pushover, jellyfish, and pansy. Republicans, take your pick.
The go-to explanation for Republican paralysis in the face of Trump is, of course, that they are afraid of losing to a Trumpian acolyte in a Republican primary. And that has certainly happened (Mark Sanford in South Carolina) and, in other cases, has seemed likely enough to scare others into early retirement (Jeff Flake in Arizona, Bob Corker in Tennessee).
But not everyone's behavior can be explained in this way. Even after Flake and Corker announced their involuntary retirements, they did not suddenly grow spines. (Flake now offers an occasional heartfelt speech or pens an op-ed, but he did nothing about Trump when he still had the power.) Mitt Romney, one of the current will-he-or-won't-he-break-ranks possibilities in the impeachment discussion, will be 77 years old the next time he could be up for election, if he chooses to run at all. And he would be running in Utah, where he is extremely popular, a member of that state's overwhelmingly dominant religion, and in every other way would not seem to be intimidated by the "you might be primaried" warning.
Similarly, Utah's Orrin Hatch did not come out against Trump's awfulness even after announcing his voluntary retirement last year, even though he is also a Mormon and comes from a very different style of Republican politics. As far as I know, Hatch has said nothing in the current context, either -- even though plenty of retired foreign service, intelligence, and law enforcement types have been signing letters and otherwise saying, "This is not acceptable!"
I was thus somewhat optimistic when I opened The Washington Post this morning and found an article carrying this headline: "Trump’s removal would require Republican dissidents. But those who speak out become targets of viral disinformation." That is not a positive story, of course, but I was optimistic at least that it might help explain the ongoing puzzle of Republican obeisance to Trump.
So, upon reading that headline, I thought: “Now this is intriguing. What is it like to be targeted by viral disinformation? That sounds bad.” But actually not so much, at least as far as the article tells us.
Admittedly, it initially sounds pretty scary: "Holding the line on impeachment, particularly by pressuring Republicans to remain in lockstep behind Trump, has quickly become the core mission of a squadron of pro-Trump television personalities, talk radio hosts, conservative blogs, fringe Facebook groups and Twitter accounts." But what does that "pressure" add up to, from his fearsome squadron of online attackers?
Here are the examples from the article:
"Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), after defending the whistleblower who raised alarm about Trump and Ukraine, faced withering criticism from the Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog that gained White House press credentials in 2017. 'So much for the Republican leaders in the Senate defending President Trump against the continuation of the attempted coup,' the site warned."
"Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who said he was troubled by the whistleblower complaint, was accused by Big League Politics, a conservative website founded by former Breitbart employees, of 'stabbing [Trump] in the back.'"
"Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who rebuked Trump for tweeting an ally’s prediction that removing him from office would spark 'civil war,' was ridiculed as 'garbage' and, in the telling of an Infowars editor, an example of 'spineless sellouts.'"
And Romney? After he used the word "troubling" to describe Trump's Ukrainian adventure, Rush Limbaugh made up a lie about Romney that "drove conspiracy theories on conservative news sites, which also celebrated a video posted by Trump on Twitter mocking the senator for losing the 2012 presidential election.The remainder of the Post article describes an innuendo-laden campaign about Romney that "spread quickly," "drove commentary," and "gained traction" in the rightwing fever swamps. The article ends, however, by entirely forgetting about Romney's place in the story, instead noting that "experts warn" that "the underlying truth of misleading narratives can make them more insidious, and more effective in manipulating public perception as the 2020 election looms." One expert ends the article with this: "The best disinformation is built around a kernel of truth. It’s the framing that makes it dangerous."
Note, however, that we have gone from saying that even mild disagreements with Trump generate fearsome attacks against the heretics to saying that innuendo-laden argumentation might be disturbingly effective in the 2020 election. Yes, it could be, but was the point not to say that the targets of those disinformation campaigns have been harmed in some substantive way?
No one doubts that online lies and smears can feel hurtful, but the danger -- at least as articulated in The Post's article -- is to democracy, not to Mitt Romney or the others, who at best seem simply scared of being criticized by rightwing trolls.
I have, in fact, commented on this phenomenon before. Early in the 2016 campaign -- in 2015, in fact, which is long before the Republican establishment fell in line behind Trump -- I commented (both on Verdict and here on Dorf on Law) on an article in The New York Times which had reported big Republican donors' reasons for failing to respond to Trump's not-yet-the-new-normal provocations.
As I put it at the time, this showed how amazingly thin-skinned these guys can be. Who would have guessed that the Koch brothers were so easy to knock down? Today, is the Koch who has not yet joined his brother in the Bad Place holding back from criticizing Trump because he does not want to be "blasted" online? Is he truly that weak?
But it is important to remember that, in that context, we are talking about people who do not hold office. The one thing politicians know is that not everyone is going to like them, and they surely know that they are going to receive a lot of guff in their lives. With great power comes mild embarrassment, every now and then.
I have no trouble believing that any given politician does not want to be criticized. No one does. Back when my columns were being republished by Newsweek and thus were seen by a wider audience, I would brace myself for the inevitable angry emails and essentially engage in triage in deciding what I would read. But in a Senate or House office, that is what staff are for!
Above, I quoted in full the supposed blowback inflicted on each of the four politicians in question because it is impossible to read it and not laugh about how little there is there:
-- Grassley (who will be 89 when his current term ends, by the way) was criticized as unreliable in defending Trump;
-- Sasse was accused of "stabbing [Trump] in the back."
-- Kinzinger was called "garbage" and a "spineless sellout."
-- Romney was mocked for losing in 2012 and was accused of false conspiracies.
Whew! How did any of them get up off the canvas after taking those blows?
To Sasse's credit, he -- even though he is up for election in 2020 -- came out yesterday strongly criticizing Trump for calling on China to investigate Joe Biden. And I have no doubt that Rush Limbaugh will again be a big meanie to the Senator from Nebraska.
But if the point of recounting those consequences faced by the few Republicans who were insufficiently loyal to Trump is to say, "See, this is why other Republicans are afraid to speak up," then that is just beyond sad.
Of course, there is another explanation. They agree with Trump and are happy with what he is doing, including trashing the Constitution. Maybe, in other words, they are not cowering invertebrates. They might simply be unpatriotic.