WASHINGTON – The objections of some Trump critics to Republican politicians attempting to join them – they awakened too late, they are risking too little, their words are not direct enough, they are halfhearted hypocrites – are pure lunacy. Do Never Trumpers actually enjoy their righteous irrelevance? Do they fear being soiled by association with the complicit and compromised?
Some news for them. Nearly every elected Republican (with a few exceptions such as Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska) has been complicit or silent in the face of President Donald Trump’s crazed and cruel political rise. Which means that nearly every future recruit to Trump skepticism could be termed a hypocrite. And God bless them all. Any serious, successful political movement welcomes converts rather than identifying heretics.
The current elected voices of this movement – Sens. Flake, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. – are heroes of sanity and principle. It is the substance of their critique, not the status of their careers, that matters. And their composite criticism is utterly damning: Americans have elected a president who is dangerously unstable, divisive, childish, nasty, deceptive, self-deluded, morally unfit, deeply unconservative and thus badly wrong on some of the largest issues of our time. Trump responded to this critique by coining another infantile nickname, feuding with a Gold Star widow and boasting how smart he really is. In pressing the anti-Trump case, Trump is always the best witness.
“I will not be complicit or silent,” said Flake on the Senate floor. “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?”
Flake’s moral indictment of his colleagues stung, and should have. Many Republican senators, as Corker has pointed out, share this view of Trump as a danger in need of containment. And there is something disgraceful in holding such an opinion and pretending otherwise in public. It treats voters – who deserve such information – with contempt and dishonors the political profession.
But here a little empathy is in order. The case against Trump may be obvious, but how and when to speak up are not always so clear. There is a chunk of Republicans on Capitol Hill – I have spoken to some of them – who are struggling to maintain their integrity along with their political viability. It is absurd to advise them (particularly pro-life members) to become Democrats, which would violate their deepest beliefs in a different way. If they don’t leave the GOP, their primary task is not to berate Trump but to win Republicans over to a different way of thinking.
This does require some line drawing. Conscience does not permit the normalization of deception, spite and bigotry. Vaclav Havel talked of how dissidents refused “to live within a lie.” When congressional leaders try to ignore Trump’s instability and prejudice in order to pass tax reform, they are living within a lie. When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, says of his more principled colleagues, “Everyone shut up and do your job,” he is living within a lie. When called upon by events – such as the Charlottesville controversy – to speak the truth, a public official has a duty to do so. And future developments – the culmination of Robert Mueller’s investigation, a serious primary challenge to Trump – may force this soon enough.
But the main task of a member of Congress in the meantime is to provide an alternative. And this requires a balance. Criticisms of what Trump has done – say, on Russia, or trade, or refugees – should be accompanied by a vision of what he should have done. Criticisms of what Trump has said should be accompanied by a description of what he should have said. The main theme should not be Trump’s depravity but the nation’s lost opportunity. Republicans need to gradually lay out a policy agenda that responds to the frustrations that led to Trump while rejecting his ideological incoherence and toxic penchant for bias and blame.
This may seem like an umbrella in a hurricane. But the other elements of an effective response to Trump and Trumpism – a sobering GOP loss of the House, a raft of criminal indictments, further evidence of presidential volatility and incompetence during crisis, the emergence of a charismatic Trump alternative in the GOP – are not within your average congressman’s power to produce. Despair has its lachrymose attractions. But it is both a sin and a surrender.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.