To whom do you look for moral leadership in the GOP in 2023?
Don’t say Liz Cheney. That’s a fine answer, but I’m thinking of current officeholders. Cheney no longer holds any office, precisely because of her moral leadership.
Mitt Romney? Also a good answer, but Romney’s on his way into retirement. And none of us would have bet our lives on him prevailing in his next Senate primary had he chosen to run again.
If you’re looking for something like moral leadership among Republican officeholders whose careers are trending upward rather than toward oblivion, all roads lead to Brian Kemp.
The governor of Georgia did his duty by certifying Joe Biden’s victory in his home state in 2020. When threatened with a primary challenge, he refused to bow out meekly, ran hard, and walloped Trump’s proxy candidate en route to reelection. Last month, as Republicans chattered about removing the Fulton County prosecutor who’s after Trump, Kemp politely instructed them to drop it. “The bottom line is that in the state of Georgia, as long as I’m governor, we’re going to follow the law and the Constitution regardless of who it helps and harms politically,” he said at a press conference.
That’s moral leadership. It’s not the sort of thing you say if you’re looking to get ahead in the Republican Party. It’s the sort of thing you say because, in good conscience, you can’t say anything else.
In an era where practically every other member of the Republican professional class has been blinded by propaganda or ambition, Kemp sees with clear eyes. Usually.
Last week a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked the governor why he intends to support Donald Trump in next year’s general election. “Despite all of his other trials and tribulations, he would still be a lot better than Biden,” Kemp answered. “And the people serving in the administration would be a lot better than Joe Biden. And it has nothing to do with being a coward. It has everything to do with winning and reversing the ridiculous, obscene positions of Joe Biden and this administration that literally, in a lot of ways, are destroying our country.”
That quote was published on Saturday. The night before, the man whom Kemp identified as being “a lot better than Biden” posted this on Truth Social:
Mark Milley, who led perhaps the most embarrassing moment in American history with his grossly incompetent implementation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, costing many lives, leaving behind hundreds of American citizens, and handing over BILLIONS of dollars of the finest military equipment ever made, will be leaving the military next week. This will be a time for all citizens of the USA to celebrate! This guy turned out to be a Woke train wreck who, if the Fake News reporting is correct, was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States. This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH! A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act. To be continued!!!
It’s unclear whether Kemp saw that post before affirming that he prefers his longtime tormentor to Biden in next year’s election. But casually musing about executing the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for treason is so quintessentially Trump circa 2023 that there’s no reason to think the governor’s opinion would have changed upon finding out.
Perhaps Kemp has at last let ambition lead him off the moral path. He knows there’s no future in this party for anyone who’s ambivalent between Trump and Biden.
But maybe he’s just grown numb to Trump’s insanity. If so, he’s not alone.
You, the reader, may be guilty of it too. Some percentage of you surely rolled your eyes when you realized what this newsletter would be about. Another Trump column?
Strive to resist numbness. Because despite all the blather about Biden and Trump being the two most known “known quantities” in politics, we actually don’t know how dangerous and destabilizing Trump might prove to be as his mind bends under the strain of an election and four indictments. Or whether it’ll break entirely once he’s back in power and surrounded by the most obsequious fascist toadies he can find.
I think he’s getting worse. Consider the manic burst of crazy-even-for-him posting he engaged in over the span of a little more than 48 hours this weekend.
It began on Friday with his fantasy about executing Mark Milley for having given China a “heads up” on the thinking of the president. That was a reference to this recent profile of the general in The Atlantic describing Milley’s prescient fears before the 2020 election that the commander-in-chief might do something nutty if faced with defeat. In particular, he worried that Trump might launch a war on Iran or China as an “October surprise” to rally voters to him; eventually Milley received intelligence that the Chinese government was worried about the same thing.
So, with the secretary of defense’s approval and at least 10 U.S. officials listening in, he called his counterpart in Beijing at the end of October 2020 to ease tensions in case China was preparing to order a preemptive strike. “The American government is stable,” Milley reportedly assured him, words no military official should ever need utter but which were understandable at the time.
It was a lie, of course. The American government wasn’t stable because the head of the executive branch wasn’t stable. But Milley may have averted a war by telling that lie, sparing the country from the consequences of having an unstable man in charge of the U.S. military.
That’s the “treason” Trump thinks he should hang for. Within two days, one of his miscreant acolytes in Congress, Paul Gosar, echoed the point by observing that “in a better society, quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be hung.”
That was Friday. On Sunday, Trump hit his stride.
First came a demand that all Senate Democrats resign over Bob Menendez’s scandal for some reason.
Senate Democrats should all resign based on Senator Bob Menendez! They all knew what was going on, and the way he lived. Why doesn’t the FBI raid Senate Democrat’s homes like they illegally raided Mar-a-Lago, where nothing was done wrong based on the Presidential Records Act. Menendez is a “piker” compared to some of those Election Stealing THUGS. Can you imagine how much Crooked Joe Biden has stolen, and what’s in some of his many homes? The FBI and “Justice” notified him that they would be going in to look,“in a few weeks.” In other words, get rid of the cash, gold, & documents, ASAP, before we get there. They didn’t give me any warning, they just showed up. Hunter lived with Crooked Joe in Delaware. It would be a “Treasure Hunt!” Crooked’s coffers must be loaded up with cash. I wonder how much they got paid for Rigging the Election? Menendez is one of many, a small timer at that. EVERY DEMOCRAT SHOULD RESIGN FROM THE SENATE! Our Border’s are Broken, our Election’s are Rigged. MAGA!
Then came a threat to use government power against the media and make them pay “a big price” once he’s back in charge.
They are almost all dishonest and corrupt, but Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC NEWS, and in particular MSNBC, often and correctly referred to as MSDNC (Democrat National Committee!), should be investigated for its “Country Threatening Treason.” Their endless coverage of the now fully debunked SCAM known as Russia, Russia, Russia, and much else, is one big Campaign Contribution to the Radical Left Democrat Party. I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events. Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE? They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! The Fake News Media should pay a big price for what they have done to our once great Country!
He wound down the day by endorsing a government shutdown for patently crooked reasons, to thwart the federal prosecutions against him and to hurt Joe Biden politically.
The Republicans lost big on Debt Ceiling, got NOTHING, and now are worried that they will be BLAMED for the Budget Shutdown. Wrong!!! Whoever is President will be blamed, in this case, Crooked (as Hell!) Joe Biden! Our Country is being systematically destroyed by the Radical Left Marxists, Fascists and Thugs – THE DEMOCRATS. UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN! Close the Border, stop the Weaponization of “Justice,” and End Election Interference – WE MUST HAVE HONEST ELECTIONS. It’s time Republicans learned how to fight! Are you listening Mitch McConnell, the weakest, dumbest, and most conflicted “Leader” in U.S. Senate history? HE’S ALREADY GIVEN THE DEMOCRATS EVERYTHING, THEY CAN’T BELIEVE HOW LUCKY THEY GOT. WE NEED NEW, & REAL, REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP IN THE UNITED STATES SENATE, NOT A CLONE OF MITCH, & WE NEED IT NOW!!!
As others have noted, any one of these sentiments would have been shocking news if expressed by Joe Biden or some other mainstream presidential frontrunner. Because it’s Trump and we’re all so very, very tired, even the post about executing Milley barely drew attention in major news outlets, there and gone like a belch in the wind.
That happens more than you might think. Dispatch readers are a knowledgeable group who stay abreast of current events, but I bet even many of our own members missed this story published in July by the New York Times. John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, swore under oath that Trump had suggested using the IRS to harass Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, the two FBI employees famously involved in the Russiagate probe. That recollection was based on contemporaneous notes taken by Kelly, a former four-star Marine general, and is true to Trump’s instinct to use public power to benefit himself and his allies and to punish his enemies. There’s no reason to doubt it.
It’s the sort of abuse of power that the Church Committee exposed after Watergate. That Americans would knowingly return a person inclined to such abuses to the White House is such grotesque civic madness that one grasps for ways to excuse it: Maybe the public just missed the story! Most people did, I’m sure. But to believe that their ignorance is responsible for their callousness is, I fear, to reverse cause and effect.
The public didn’t take that news in stride because Trump’s critics neglected to make a big deal about it. It’s more that Trump’s critics neglected to make a big deal about it because, with few exceptions, the public takes revelations of Trump’s corruption in stride.
Why bother promoting the IRS story? After four criminal indictments, Trump is running away with the Republican primary and no worse than dead even with Biden in head-to-head polling. Why would news that he sought to sic the Internal Revenue Service on liberals finally cause any sleeping consciences to stir?
Would Brian Kemp, having concluded that a failed coup is no reason not to prefer Trump to Biden, suddenly declare himself neutral in the election upon being informed of it?
We’re all numb to his depravity to some degree. Yes, even at The Dispatch.
On Sunday I posted Trump’s comment about wanting the media to be “thoroughly scrutinized” once he’s president again in the company Slack channel. A colleague replied, “What’s more deranged: that he says stuff like this, that nobody cares anymore, or that we all know he won’t actually do anything like this in office?”
That last part is an underrated factor in why so many have gone numb, I think. There’s been endless reporting on Trump’s presidency about him having considered some hair-raising executive action or other, then relenting when his advisers browbeat him into backing off.
He wanted out of NATO. He wanted to fire Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russiagate probe. He wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act during protests following George Floyd’s murder. He wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan with two months’ notice to the military. He wanted illegal immigrants shot in the legs to deter them from crossing the border. He wanted Jeffrey Clark named acting attorney general to midwife his coup attempt. I could go on and on. In the end, none of it happened.
Using the IRS to harass Strzok and Page? That didn’t happen either. His aides and lawyers occasionally failed to save Trump from himself, but they succeeded more often than not until January 6, 2021. The question is why. Why did he listen to them?
It’s an important question. No matter what answer you arrive at, you should worry a lot about a second term.
It could be a matter of character. Trump is lazy, easily distracted, not very ideological, and certainly not, shall we say, “detail-oriented.” That makes him easily influenced by knowledgeable people in his circle, especially if they frame their objections to his preferred cause of action in terms of how it might cause legal or political trouble for him. (Good luck dissuading him from doing something he believes is in his interest by appealing to his morals.) As long as he has responsible people around him—Pat Cipollones, John Kellys, James Mattises, etc.—then we should be fine in a second term. The old pattern will repeat.
You’ve already spotted the problem with this theory, though. There won’t be responsible people around him in the next administration. For one thing, he no longer needs the Kellys and Cipollones to help guide him while learning the ropes of the presidency. But beyond that, the whole point of a campaign organized around themes of “retribution” is that he intends to behave ruthlessly toward his antagonists and will want similarly ruthless people in key roles to carry out that program. If anything, he probably blames his most responsible aides for having cost him power when they restrained him to some degree in trying to overturn the last election.
The second term will be pure kakistocracy, by design. (As Politico reports, “The Project 2025 team is scouring records and social media accounts to rule out heretics—effectively administering loyalty tests—and launching a so-called Presidential Administration Academy that tutors future MAGA bureaucrats with video classes in ‘Conservative Governance 101.’”) So who’s going to try to talk him out of it if and when he uses executive power against the “enemies of the people,” American media?
Another possibility for why Trump didn’t follow through on his worst impulses during his first term boils down to incentives. Simply put, he wanted to be reelected. Whenever he got the itch to, say, have the military open fire on illegal immigrants or American rioters, he had to consider how suburban swing voters would react. Electoral incentives may have saved the NATO alliance, in fact. According to two Washington Post reporters, Trump was known to discuss withdrawing from NATO and South Korea during meetings with top national security aides but was warned that exiting those relationships before the election would be “politically dangerous.”
You’ve spotted the problem with this theory too, I’m sure. A term-limited president no longer need worry about what’s politically dangerous.
“We’ll do it in the second term,” Trump reportedly told those aides when they worried about the electoral consequences of withdrawing from NATO, and I suspect he meant it. Shredding alliances, implementing Schedule F, staffing the Pentagon with cronies, persecuting “enemies of the people” various and sundry—I’m not sure why anything would be off the table once he no longer needs to consider reelection. Courts will eventually intervene, but that’s just a different permutation of the same problem. What incentive would he have to obey court rulings in a second term?
For that matter, what incentive would he have to leave office peacefully in 2028? If he was willing to contrive conspiratorial nonsense once to try to cling to power, there’s no reason he wouldn’t try again. Some of his fans on the New Right have already taken a shine to the concept of “emergency powers.”
If electoral incentives can’t deter him and his top personnel won’t deter him, the only other force that might conceivably keep him in check is his own supporters. If he did something outlandishly authoritarian that offended the Republican base, causing his job approval to collapse, that might make him think twice. A strongman can’t work his will on classical liberalism without some political muscle behind him.
You’ve, uh, sensed the problem here as well. He’s campaigning explicitly on retribution against the Bad People and he’s up almost 50 points in the Republican primary because of it. The American right is signing up for this willingly. They’re not going to stop him or hold him accountable. If anything, they’re going to egg him on. And possibly do more than that.
And even Brian Kemp, the “good Republican” who’s demonstrated genuine moral leadership, seems to find that preferable to four more years of Bidenomics.
So, no, with due respect to my unnamed Dispatch colleague, I don’t know that Trump won’t determinedly try to shatter major constitutional precedents once back in office. But I suspect a lot of voters who haven’t thought this through, or who feel obliged to prioritize differently, are willing to take a calculated risk that he won’t in order to rationalize voting for him for kitchen-table reasons.
No wonder, then, that so many of us have grown uncomfortably numb about his illiberal nonsense. What else can we do? The right-wing electorate that craves his brand of politics will abide after Trump passes from the scene, and the swing voters who decide elections seem open to accepting a paradigm shift toward post-liberalism in exchange for a slightly better economy. There’s nothing to be done. What choice do we have but to get used to it?