House Select Committee Hearing 2: Scoundrels, Patriots, and Collaborators

 by Michael C. Dorf

The intended takeaway from Monday's meeting of the January 6 House Select Committee goes roughly as follows: Trump lost the 2020 election; every reasonably well-informed responsible person around Trump told him that he lost the election and explained to him, at length and repeatedly, that his claims of election fraud were, as then-AG William Barr put it, "bullshit"; Trump nevertheless repeatedly peddled false claims of election fraud in order to stoke his base and fundraise off of the Big Lie, which was, in Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren's phrase, "also a big rip-off." Further hearings will explain how Trump's promotion of the Big Lie fueled the insurrection.

Whether these hearings will move public opinion at all, much less enough to motivate 2024 Republican primary voters to reject Trump if he runs again, remains to be seen. In the meantime, I want to use this space today to draw some distinctions among three categories of Republican leaders.

At one end of the spectrum are what I'll call scoundrels--people who are all in on Trump. Some of the scoundrels are clowns, like My Pillow guy Mike Lindell, lawyer Sidney Powell, and opera buffa character Rudy Giuliani. Other scoundrels are calculating careerists like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. But whether they have drunk the Trump Kool-Aid or only pretend to, the scoundrels and the voters who vigorously support them are presumably unreachable. They should be resisted, full stop.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I'll call patriots. Most of these people are never-Trumpers like George Conway, Bill Kristol, and Steve Schmidt--figures who were and remain conservative on policy matters but whose well-justified revulsion at Trump lead them to oppose him even if it means that people with liberal/progressive politics get elected. Especially noteworthy among the patriots are the handful of Republican elected officials, led by Liz Cheney, who openly challenge Trump while also trying to retain their positions as elected officials. To be sure, in recognizing the patriotism of such characters, I do not want to give them a free pass. It took courage and principle for Mitt Romney to vote twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges, but even so, he does not support filibuster reform that would be necessary to enact voting rights legislation sufficiently robust to have a hope of resisting the next round of anti-democratic moves by the Trumped up GOP. Still, I count Cheney, Romney, and others in this category as legitimate patriots.

Let us focus now on an intermediate category of what I'll call collaborators--people who worked for or with Trump but claim that they saw the menace he presented and tried to temper it. For better or worse, the Select Committee tried to make its case on Monday mostly through the testimony of collaborators: Bill Barr; Bill Stepien; Ivanka Trump; Jared Kushner; and a few others who were inside the White House trying to talk sense into Trump and dubbed "Team Normal" as opposed to the crazies working on Team Rudy.

The borders of these categories are blurry and dynamic. For most of Trump's presidency, Mike Pence was at best a collaborator and arguably a scoundrel, but in the lead-up to and after January 6, he was a patriot. I'm sure we could have interesting discussions about other figures too. Let's put those aside for now to focus on the nature of the collaborator category.

Consider Barr. He lobbied to be chosen to replace Jeff Sessions by critiquing the Mueller investigation and then, as AG, misled the public about the Mueller report's contents in a way that completely and permanently distorted perceptions. Barr carried water for Trump in numerous ways. He was Trump's Roy Cohn until he finally found a line he would not cross--whether out of personal integrity or a sense that for his professional reputation to survive the Trump presidency he would need to distance himself from Trump. Barr's testimony before the Select Committee is effective precisely because he was so willing to debase himself on behalf of Trump for so long, much in the way that statements from Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are credible precisely because of their close family ties to the former president.

I don't know nearly as much about Stepien and other former White House insiders as I know about Barr, so I could only speculate about their motivation, but the Committee seems pretty clearly to have chosen to rely on them because their status as Republicans who were willing to and did work for Trump gives them credibility. Indeed, the fact that Barr remains a collaborator rather than a patriot--as evidenced by his statement that he will vote for Trump in 2024 if he's the GOP nominee--gives him a soupçon of added credibility.

Yet that very fact about Barr and presumably about Ivanka, Jared, and others makes them unsavory characters. "Team normal" is a much much too generous term for the sorts of people who were willing to support Trump's 2016 election and his 2020 re-election bid, to advance his awful policy goals and serve as public apologist for his authoritarianism, to support Trump still should he run against a Democrat, but merely to have drawn the line at an outright coup justified on the basis of bullshit. "Team the New Normal" is a more apt moniker.

(N.B. After I drafted but before posting today's essay, I came across Michelle Cottle's NY Times op-ed proposing "Team Chicken" but otherwise describing the collaborators in a broadly similar way. I prefer "Team the New Normal" to emphasize that the issue is not simply a matter of cowardice on the part of a few individuals but a broader acceptance of Trump by too many erstwhile establishment Republicans.)

* * *

But now let us think the unthinkable. Suppose that Trump regains the White House in 2025, either legitimately (because voters blame Biden for inflation and are motivated by right-wing culture-war agit-prop about critical race theory, gender-inclusive pronouns, etc.) or illegitimately (through voter suppression, Trumped up charges of voter fraud, and resolution of bogus disputes by gerrymandered state legislatures and/or Trumpy election officials). At that point, if it's a choice between a second Trump administration filled with scoundrels or one filled with collaborators, wouldn't we prefer the latter?

That was my view just after the 2016 presidential election, when, in a blog post that was, in retrospect, insufficiently pessimistic, I included this:

If you are a principled conservative who opposed Trump's candidacy for any of the many excellent reasons there were to oppose it, PLEASE consider seeking and accepting a job in the Trump administration. We have a unitary executive in principle, but in practice it takes a great many people to run the government. If principled conservatives decline to serve in a Trump administration, it will be filled with servile hacks. Working in the government, you can better advance the rule of law and other values you hold dear than by standing outside and criticizing. In any event, we liberals will be doing plenty of that.

On balance, I still believe that. As we saw during the (first?) Trump presidency, the "grownups in the room" face serious challenges reining in the spiteful, ignorant, impetuous narcissist. Nonetheless, even if most such efforts fail, they will occasionally succeed in limiting the damage, which is more than one can expect from an administration filled entirely with scoundrels.

In at least one important way, the issue would be different in 2025 from what it was in 2017. At the beginning of the Trump presidency, most observers expected 4 or 8 years of terrible policy and leadership, likely followed by a return to something resembling normal. A second Trump presidency commencing in 2025 could be the beginning of an entirely new and authoritarian regime, albeit one that still maintains various pretenses of democracy.

Even so, however, the bottom line might be the same. There's as much or more to be gained by mitigating the harm from an authoritarian regime as from a terrible but temporary administration in a still-functioning democracy. The core problem, to my mind, is that despite my 2016 plea quoted above, most of the people who are likely to collaborate in a second Trump presidency will not be doing it to mitigate the damage but because they are careerists who at best rationalize their actions as serving a mitigation function. They will have few opportunities to mitigate and take advantage of even fewer. Such collaborators are not "normal" public servants. They are at best "new normal," which, alas, may be the best we could hope for in this bleak and not-at-all-fanciful near-future.