Imagine how Republicans would have reacted if former President Barack Obama had attacked a retailer for dropping his daughter’s product line. Or asked senators to confirm a Cabinet pick who said guns are needed in schools to defend against grizzly bears. Or tried to undermine the independence of the federal judiciary. Or equated the United States’ moral standing with that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
There would have been howls of outrage, of course, and multiple investigations, and even calls for impeachment. But it’s President Donald Trump doing all those things, so Republicans in Congress are as meek and quiet as mice.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the chaotic and exhausting first three weeks of the Trump administration is the degree to which Republicans have held together, placing loyalty above all else. The party of Lincoln has sold its soul – and like all Faustian bargains, this one will not end well.
At present, Trump looks likely to get every one of his Cabinet nominees approved. Billionaire Betsy DeVos gave the worst performance in memory, surely one of the worst in history, at her confirmation hearing, displaying a level of ignorance that was truly shocking. Only two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – had the integrity to vote against her. Vice President Pence had to break a 50-50 tie, but DeVos is now the secretary of education.
And that was the closest thing we’ve seen to a GOP revolt in these confirmations. Not one Republican voted against confirming former Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, despite his ugly history on civil rights. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went so far as to formally squelch Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., so she could not read aloud a letter criticizing Sessions written decades ago by the late Coretta Scott King.
Trump’s pick for the Labor Department, fast-food magnate Andrew Puzder, has conflicts of interest and a nanny problem; he may face some pushback. Ben Carson has zero qualifications to lead Housing and Urban Development. But if DeVos got through, it’s hard to imagine who would be deemed unacceptable by the GOP majority.
Over in the House, meanwhile, all the zeal for holding the executive branch accountable has gone poof. Remember how eager House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was to investigate every real or imagined question about the Obama administration? Remember how he went after Hillary Clinton over her emails? Suddenly – and this is rich – he declines to launch any probe that might be seen as a “fishing expedition.”
Trump’s attack on a private company, Nordstrom Inc., for no longer carrying his daughter Ivanka’s line of merchandise? “Not a big deal,” Chaffetz said. Trump’s hotel lease for the Old Post Office Building, which makes him both landlord and tenant? Chaffetz is “curious” but wants to wait for an opinion by the General Services Administration, which now reports to Trump. The many potential conflicts of interest posed by Trump’s worldwide business interests? Chaffetz stifles a yawn.
And only a few Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, have shown any interest in investigating the biggest question hanging over the Trump administration: What role did Russia play in the election? This abdication of duty is cynicism of the highest order, or perhaps I should say the lowest.
The GOP’s lockstep unity has been impressive, and it may eventually allow the party to achieve some of its long-held policy goals: cutting taxes, eliminating regulations, repealing the Affordable Care Act. But there are enormous risks.
The dawn of the Trump presidency has inspired a groundswell of progressive activism around the country. The energy generated by the massive Women’s March on Washington and its satellite marches last month has been sustained. Republican members of Congress have been deluged by phone calls at their offices and confronted by protesters in their home districts. “The women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., complained.
If opposition to Trump unites and motivates Democrats the way opposition to Obama did for Republicans, GOP strategists should be very worried.
Beyond the political risk, there is the existential risk of blindly following a man who continues to demonstrate his unfitness for the presidency. Trump shows no respect for American institutions or traditions. He sees those who disagree with him as “haters” and dismisses inconvenient facts as “fake news.” He deliberately stokes fear. He bristles at constitutional checks on his power.
And to think, there once was a Republican president who summoned “the better angels of our nature.”
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.