Support for Horrible Politicians (Trump-Focused Edition)
by Neil H. Buchanan
Yesterday, in "Support for Horrible Politicians (Herschel Walker and Liz Truss edition, with cameos by Donald Trump and Bill Clinton)," Professor Dorf commented on the nonstop series of disqualifying scandals engulfing Republican candidate Herschel Walker -- a column that of necessity had to include an acknowledgement that those scandals might not be disqualifying enough to make Walker lose his race against Senator Raphael Warnock. Why? Because power. That is, for Republicans who want to take back the Senate and exercise/abuse the power that their renewed majority status would bring, "support for Walker--or for Satan himself were he to run as a Republican--is instrumentally rational," as Dorf put it.
That is surely true and interesting, and it is merely the leaping off point for the rest of yesterday's column. Notably, in the less than 24 hours since that column was published, the second politician named in its headline -- Liz Truss -- informed King Charles III that she is resigning as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Why did I not simply write: "Truss announced that she's quitting"? Highlighting the monarchist aspects of the UK's political system, while reporting the fact that their democracy has become utterly chaotic (with the unholy alliance between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson having finally broken the system so badly that they now cannot even keep a PM in office for two months), makes it especially poignant to note the odd reality that their democracy is still in better shape than ours.
Truss, after all, left in disgrace, because even her own party's supporters stopped supporting her. As Dorf pointed out yesterday, that is impossible to imagine here. It is not only impossible to imagine in situations like Walker's, where the devil's bargain is obvious. It is barely possible to imagine it happening in the US even when swapping out damaged goods for someone less awful would not threaten anyone's power.
Here, I want to explore the deeper explanation that yesterday's column offered for that bipartisan reality: "a rally-'round-our-leader/nominee phenomenon." I think that is right, but I think it also misses something important about the difference between Republicans and Democrats. And a more complete explanation will remind us just how central bigotry and hatred are to the American conservative movement today.
Because the political stakes involved in a situation like Walker's are so obvious, I suspect that most Democrats would concede (at least privately) that they would also continue to support someone like a Herschel Walker in an analogous circumstance. For example, if we had found out something truly galling about Joe Biden in October 2020 -- that he had, say, been engaged in financial corruption and was putting the ill-gotten money into a Saudi-run sovereign wealth fund -- we would have still voted for him. As one person I know put it, however, we would have felt horrible about it and done a very bad job of rationalizing it.
That might not matter, but it is truly difficult to picture all but a few true Democratic hacks (Jim Carville comes to mind) who would go on TV and say things with a straight face that would mirror what almost all Republicans have been saying about Walker this month. I also suspect that that icky feeling probably would have led to some kind of announcement that Biden's name could not be taken off the ballot but he would resign as soon as he took office, or something like that.
But maybe I am naive about how cutthroat my team can be. Even if I am, however, the question is what would happen not in a Walker-like situation but a Truss-like one -- where, again, the balance of power is not at stake. Truss will be replaced by another awful Tory, one who the Conservatives hope can stop their political bleeding but one who at a minimum keeps Labour Leader Keir Starmer out of No. 10. As I was reading yesterday's column, I kept thinking, "Come on, Mike, the clearly pertinent example is the Republicans' refusal to dump Trump during his first impeachment -- or even sooner." And sure enough, that is where the column soon headed.
Interestingly, however, Professor Dorf paired that comparison with the Democrats' (and, by the way, five Republicans') refusal to convict Clinton in 1999's impeachment vote. With two impeachments to compare side-by-side, the rally-'round-our-guy story does seem to be a promising explanation. Even so, I think the differences in the two situations are more important than the similarities. More specifically, I think that there is a pretty good case to be made that rallying around Clinton was at least politically sensible and arguably even honorable, whereas Republican support of Trump was neither.
Regarding Clinton, I should say up front that I was one of the people at the time who wanted the Democrats to convince Clinton to resign and, should he refuse, to vote with the Republicans to convict and remove him from office. Professor Dorf offers a good two-part reason why Democrats could have come to that conclusion -- "Had Senate Democrats voted to remove Clinton, Al Gore--indistinguishable from Clinton on policy but less loathsome--would have been able to run for president with the advantages of incumbency" -- but I should say that neither part had much oomph for someone like me. That is, I affirmatively despised Clinton and his Gore-endorsed policies, so the "indistinguishable" part was not a plus; and although I was aware that Gore would have the advantages of incumbency, I would have supported removing Clinton even if Gore had promised to be a caretaker for the remainder of Clinton's term and then retire from public life.
I am certainly not, therefore, one of the people who thought that what Clinton did was "no big deal." I think that his exploitation of the most one-sided power dynamics imaginable -- literally the most powerful person on earth versus a very young woman serving him as an intern -- for sexual gratification was an enormous deal, and I thought it was thoroughly disqualifying. And I should add that it should have disqualified him not only from the presidency but from being considered an elder statesman in his party, which means that I have been stunned to see Clinton being lionized by far too many Democrats in the decades since he left office.
The argument at the time from Democrats who disagreed with people like me (which means almost all of them) fell along two lines. The shameful response -- the one that partially contradicts my claim above that Democrats would not do what Republicans are doing for Walker right now -- was to go on the attack against Monica Lewinsky, with some pretty ugly stuff coming from people whose opinions I once respected. But the response that I described above as arguably honorable is that what Clinton had done did not "rise to the level of an impeachable offense" (a phrase that was repeated approximately a jillion times in 1998 and 1999). And if it was not in the category of high crimes and misdemeanors, then removing a president even for something as bad as what Clinton did could permanently damage the presidency, effectively validating the anti-Clintonites' "politics of personal destruction" and encouraging more of the same.
I am often skeptical of slippery slope arguments, but I admitted then and believe to this day that there was a real danger that convicting Clinton could have been damaging in exactly this way. Again, I hoped that he would resign, in part because I thought that there would be less of an incentive created by allowing him to resign rather than being convicted and removed. Maybe, maybe not. In any event, I do think that it was politically important for Democrats to oppose the way the Republicans were operating politically, and voting to acquit Slick Willy was possibly the best/only way to do that. Had I been a senator, I probably would have ended my political career by being the lone Democrat voting to convict, but my point here is that those who rallied around Clinton were rallying around something other than "their leader."
Contrasting this with the Trump situation during his term in office is rather straightforward. Even before the 2019 impeachment, Republicans had been given unending opportunities to dump Trump. Again, this was a Truss situation, not a Walker situation, because Mike Pence was in waiting. Indeed, unlike the ideologically identical Clinton/Gore team, Pence was in every way more representative of what Republicans had converged upon in the last few decades: a religious prig who opposed abortion and women's rights in general, supporter of a racist agenda who was fully practiced at dog whistling and saying the quiet part quietly, and an enthusiast for the interests of the wealthy (tax cuts, environmental pillaging, and screwing consumers and especially workers). The man was everything that Republicans could claim to have wanted.
As I suggested above, the Republicans had plenty of opportunity to get rid of their supposed interloper (a man who claimed to oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare, who was a protectionist, and who was anything but a Good Christian™). The very latest that one could say that Republicans did not have a principled exit strategy with Trump was the day before he fired James Comey as FBI Director. Thenceforth, from "very fine people" to every other once-outrageous thing that Republicans quickly set aside, Republicans were given multiple opportunities to say that they oh-so-reluctantly had been forced to conclude that they had nominated and elected a man who had disgraced his office, his party, and his country.
The closest thing to a rally-round-the-leader argument that Republicans offered, as far as I can recall, was during the first impeachment itself, when they (including Adam Kinzinger, who at least has had the decency to express remorse at his vote against Trump's first impeachment) said that the Democrats were trying to "undo the results of an election." That was stupid then, and it is stupid now. By definition, impeachments can only apply to people who have won elections, so the only way to avoid undoing elections is to take the impeachment process out of the Constitutoin (literally or effectively).
Even on its own terms, however, that argument could not have applied if Republicans themselves had impeached Trump or joined in a bipartisan effort to do so. They clearly were not unhappy at having won in 2016. They could claim (perhaps not with a convincingly straight face) to be shocked in May 2017 at how unfit he had turned out to be, and they could have removed him.
Still, I think that Professor Dorf is correct in diagnosing what Republicans did as rallying 'round their leader. The point, however, is why they did so versus why the Democrats did so in Clinton's case. Democrats in 1999 almost unanimously condemned Clinton's actions, he apologized for them, and everyone was happy that he was not eligible to run for reelection. (That could have been interesting, and ugly.) The principled reason to keep Clinton in office, even with Gore available, was to preserve the standards for impeachment and count the days until he would leave office in disgrace.
Is any of that analogous to what Republicans did in defending Trump? Of course not. Why, then, would they rally around him? Here is my theory: They liked what he was doing. Yes, I am aware of the argument that Republicans are afraid of Trump's base, but that phenomenon was not locked in until much more recently. After Trump's chaotic first few months in office -- with the Muslim ban, a parade of clownish cabinet choices, and the obvious lying (starting with Sean Spicer's lies about the size of the inaugruation crowd) -- there was an easy case to be made that Trump was not turning out to be what the people thought they were voting for in November 2016.
That even the Mitch McConnells of the world understood at their core that Trump was turning out to be exactly what Republicans wanted him to be is their ultimate self-indictment. This was not about tax cuts and judges. People who decry the dreadful Dobbs decision by saying that it is part of Trump's ugly legacy are simply wrong. That is not what Republicans got from Trump, because he was simply the person who did what Pence or any other Republcain would have done when it came to the Supreme Court.
What did Republicans get by rallying around Trump? Exactly what we have today: open bigotry and the mainstreaming of hatred. As bad as Pence is -- and as bad as people like Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton might be -- only Trump could deliver what Trump delivered. That is what Republicans won by keeping him in office: not only the end of democracy (which was going to happen even without Trump) but the ultimate coarsening and degradation of society.