More Thoughts on Republicans' Cowardice ... or Maybe Something Else

by Neil H. Buchanan

This past Friday, I wrote with some bemused astonishment about the supposedly horrible consequences that Republicans would face if they were ever to ... shudder ... take a public position that was critical of Donald Trump.  Most directly, I was responding to a Washington Post article that described the fallout for four elected Republicans who have recently mouthed mildly not-pro-Trumpian comments -- Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Sens. Chuck Grassley, Mitt Romney, and Ben Sasse.

Why was it so laughable?  The unpleasant consequences mostly amounted to nothing more than name-calling (Kinzinger was called a "spineless sellout" -- ouch!) along with some attempts by Trump's troll army to invent new conspiracy theories about Romney.  To his credit, Romney had more negative things to say about Trump over the weekend, so apparently Romney is not too worried about whatever he is reading and hearing.

The larger context for this, of course, is that the mainstream press has decided to explain Republicans' cowering obeisance as a matter of their trying to avoid Trump's "wrath," "fury," "outbursts," and so on.  But what do those purportedly intimidating emotional explosions amount to?  Trump responded to Romney over the weekend by calling him a "pompous 'ass.'"  (Note that Trump put "ass" in quotation marks within his tweet.  I have no idea why.)  Although this does happen to be an accurate description of Romney, so what?  If that is what Republicans fear so much, then resigned laughter truly is the only possible response.

Here, I want to move past this silliness and stop avoiding the subtext, which of course is the unvoiced concern about Trump-inspired violence.  In addition, I want to emphasize a point that I made at the end of Friday's column, which is that this entire discussion about Republicans' spinelessness might simply be misguided, because it is quite possible that they are all perfectly happy with Trump, even now.

To get to the uglier point first, what about the threat of violence?  I have been one of the few people warning for years now about the likelihood of some subset of Trump supporters becoming violent, but it gives me no satisfaction to see that such fears are now going mainstream.

For example, The Post ran an op-ed last week under the headline: "A Short Primer on Preventing Political Violence."  Although the piece was obviously well motivated, in the end it did very little in the way of offering solutions beyond milquetoast suggestions like this: "[T]he media should stop treating every issue as a win or loss for one partisan side, which increases polarization, and instead emphasize the complexity of policy outcomes and the multifaceted nature of our identities, both of which humanize fellow Americans."  Thanks for that.

But the bigger issue deserves serious attention.  It is, indeed, possible that Trump's tendency to muse out loud about inflicting violence on his enemies will lead to tragedy and escalation.  That is why I think it is no small thing to remember former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's warning that there will be no peaceful transition of power from Trump to anyone else.

Even so, the question here is not whether, say, Trump's enthusiastic retweeting of warnings of "civil war" will bear bitter fruit (which raises the further question about what the U.S. military might do if things move in that direction).  The question I am posing here is whether I was unfair to Romney and others by mocking them for being scared of being mocked, so scared that they are willing to ignore Trump's multiple -- and obvious -- impeachable offenses.

If, indeed, I was being unfair, it would have to be because I was understating the consequences facing the potential Republican heretics.  Perhaps they are truly afraid of something far worse than a rage-tweet from the nominal leader of their party.  Maybe they are truly scared, for themselves and their loved ones (as well as for the country at large).

Before I get there, however, I must point out that American politicians are not known for their courage even in much less fraught situations.  In the late 1980's, during the flurry of events that in short order brought down the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union itself, Republicans -- who, younger readers might not realize, were once quite critical of Russian politicians and military adventurism -- invited Poland's inspiring protest leader Lech Walesa to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

This was a bit awkward, of course, because Walesa was a labor activist, which was not exactly on-brand with the Reagan/Bush era's attacks on U.S. labor unions.  More to the point here, however, wags at the time pointed out that there was barely more than a handful of American politicians among those cheering for Walesa's speech who would have dared to make a move without first focus-group testing every possible decision.  Profiles in courage?  Not so much.  But at least they seemed to recognize someone else's genuine courage in literally putting his life on the line.

It would, in other words, likely take far less than fear of physical harm to get most American politicians to flinch.  Our question here, however, is whether the (at best) hesitating Republicans in fact might be motivated by an unstated fear of violence, rather than the seeming cowardice of hiding from mean-spirited comments on social media.

Again, we cannot know what is going unreported, but I have yet to read an article claiming that these Republicans are worried about more than online scoldings or losing in a primary.  The second consequence is admittedly more than a matter of hurt feelings, but even the less-there-than-he-seems former Senator Jeff Flake recently admonished his former colleagues by noting: "Trust me when I say you can go elsewhere for a job."

Even if some of these Republicans are in fact receiving (not widely reported) death threats, it is important to bear in mind that Democratic members of Congress are receiving a steady stream of threats of deadly violence.  The so-called Squad is a focus of hatred, of course, but Democrats have received death threats on a regular basis, going back at least as far as the emergence of the proto-MAGA Tea Party movement.

My conclusion, therefore, is that even giving the full benefit of the doubt to Republicans who worry that standing up to Trump might be dangerous still does not absolve them.  There is, after all, an entire political party -- and about sixty percent or more of the population -- that opposes Trump every day.  Is there more worry than there used to be that this might get out of hand?  Sadly, yes.  But even the huge leap up from online ridicule to fear of actual violence has not stopped others from doing their duty, and it should not stop Republicans, either.

Which brings me back to the point that I made at the end of Friday's column (and to which I alluded at the top of this column).  One only needs to explain why Republicans are not trying to remove an unfit president from office if one thinks that, deep down, that is what they truly wish that they could do.  If the claim is true that "30 Republican senators would vote to impeach Trump" if there were a secret ballot, then we are on the right track.

As I wrote last time, however, this might be missing the point: "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."

I considered writing a different final sentence: "Maybe they simply hate America."  This was based on the infamous phrasing by rightwing trolls during the lead-up to the (most recent) U.S. invasion of Iraq, who would respond to anti-invasion Democrats not by engaging with the substance but by demanding: "Why do you hate America?"

While the Coulters of the world were being McCarthyesque, however, the question here is a real one.  Maybe these Republicans (Senators and others) who oppose impeachment/conviction/removal do so not out of fear but out of enthusiasm.  Maybe they like regressive tax cuts.  Maybe they like packing the federal courts.  Maybe they like racist/sexist/repressive policies.  Maybe they like rigging elections so that they will never lose.

Maybe they like all of those things more than they care about constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

That is surely true of some unknown percentage of Trump's defenders (and onlookers who are guilty by their silence).  As I have written over and over again (as have many other observers), the modern Republican Party's policy stances were so far to the right even before Trump that there is very little that they would not like about him.  Tariffs and cozying up to Russia, maybe; but not much else.  And they have gotten used to those minor irritants.

Yet that itself deepens the mystery, because Republicans could get everything they are currently getting from any standard-issue current Republican president, starting with Mike Pence but going straight down the line.  No one should seriously believe that Marco Rubio or John Kasich would have told Mitch McConnell to stop nominating judicial hacks to the courts, or that they would have been "moderate" on abortion or tax cuts.

It is also worth remembering that, prior to Trump's installation in the White House, the Republicans' majority in the House of Representatives was considered rock solid -- a solidity borne of gerrymandering, to be sure, but that just made it seem even more unimaginable that they could ever lose that base of power.

The 2018 midterms were entirely a referendum on Trump as Trump, not Trump as Republican.  Recall that he refused to stay on message about tax cuts and insisted on hyping the supposed "caravans" of invading brown-skinned immigrants.  They lost forty seats.  Now, more and more Republicans are retiring from the House (with an oddly large number from Texas, of all places), apparently because there is so little chance of returning to the majority with Trump at the top of the ticket.

Even those who love the things that Trump does, therefore, have reason to want to find someone else to do those things.  Unless, that is, they love Trump himself.  In which case we truly are talking about a cult of personality.  That is a possibility, to be sure, but even the Lindsey Grahams of the world seem more cynical than that.

In the end, Republicans' deer-in-headlights trance might be a matter of cowardice, or it might be something else that is even worse.  But "at least he gives us what we want" cannot be that something else, because Trump has already cost them plenty, and he has delivered nothing that they could not have achieved without him.