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GOP Senators Must Take the Hard Path
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GOP Senators Must Take the Hard Path

The time for hoping that someone else will deal with the pathology of Trumpism is long past.

I want to begin with a hypothetical. Let’s imagine that on February 5, 2020, almost two dozen GOP senators had done a very, very hard thing. Following Mitt Romney’s history-making break with a president of his own party, they each got up—one-by-one—and declared their intention to vote to convict Donald Trump. After all, many senators knew Trump’s attempt to coerce an allied nation to investigate a domestic political rival and to advance a bizarre Crowdstrike conspiracy theory was an abuse of office. Even more, they knew what Trump’s White House was like. They knew he was an unfit president who was constantly being held in check by increasingly beleaguered aides and allies.

On February 5, the GOP faced a binary choice: Trump or Pence. It chose Trump. What if had chosen Pence? Trump’s most loyal supporters said that removal would destroy the GOP at the polls, but the Republican Party was swept out of power anyway. Trump’s angriest backers said there might be violence. They took the Capitol anyway.

But note the date. If the GOP had chosen Mike Pence, he would have been president throughout the pandemic. He would have been president when Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Does anyone doubt that he would have handled those twin crises with greater wisdom and grace than Donald Trump?

Pence wouldn’t have issued a series of incandescent lies to the American public about COVID. He wouldn’t have given aid and comfort to a masking culture war, and he certainly would have stood in sympathetic solidarity with the suffering.

When George Floyd died and rage rippled across the land, would Mike Pence have cleared a path through protesters and chased priests from their own church to wave a Bible defiantly in the air? Would he have done everything in his power not just to restore order but also to thoughtfully pursue necessary reform?

No, I’m not lionizing Mike Pence. I’m saying these are the actions normal leaders take. These are the actions decent leaders take. And these kinds of actions don’t make America perfect, but they do make it better. Or, to put it another way, as America’s COVID death toll may well pass 400,000 today, how many Americans would still be alive if the national response of the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful country wasn’t worse than that of all but a handful of nations in the world?

Instead, this is where we are today:

This is where we are today:

Ever since Donald Trump came down the escalator on June 14, 2015, his rise has been aided and abetted by the reluctance to do the hard thing and take him on directly. Instead, always and forever people hoped that he’d destroy himself, that “this time” he’d go too far.

“His announcement speech was nuts. No one will go for that.”  

“He mocked John McCain for being captured? He’s done.”

In the primary, opponents (especially Ted Cruz) seemed more intent on inheriting Trump’s supporters after the inevitable implosion than stepping up and taking Trump head-on.

On the left, people laughed at the GOP. All too many members of the media didn’t see him as a future president, but rather as a spectacular loser. Plus, he was good for ratings. So they did the easy thing and made him a fixture on television, granting him billions of dollars in free exposure to the American public. In 2016, CBS chief executive Les Moonves said the presidential race “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

I don’t need to keep going. You all know the history. You know that throughout the Trump era, all too many GOP politicians and public figures have said one thing in public about Trump and another thing entirely in private. 

With some notable exceptions, the Republican rule was clear: Checking Trump was someone else’s job. And every single time Republicans refused to check Trump, they kept putting leadership of the Republic into unfit hands. They made a gamble that the costs would not grow too great.

They chose poorly.

I’m not bringing this up now to dunk on anybody or to say, “I told you so.” Heck, there was a moment when I chose not to do a really hard thing—make a long-longshot independent run for president. (It’s still weird to type those words, all these years later.)

I bring up this history for a different reason: I fear that the Senate GOP is about to make the same mistake the GOP has made for more than five long years. This time, it’s really over. This time, he’s truly exiting the national stage. So we don’t have to actually convict him, do we? We don’t have to actually bar him from office? After all, won’t that infuriate his violent base?

Several of us here at The Dispatch are noticing a distressing reality. After an initial week of shock and horror following the Capitol attack (and substantial erosion in the president’s public approval polling), a number of his defenders have reverted to type. The old swagger is back. And the old threat is returning: Back Trump or there’s no future for you in the GOP.

For example, last night Laura Ingraham unleashed this astonishing segment aimed at my friend and old boss Rich Lowry:

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, just know that after Trump has essentially abdicated his office to spend all his energies fighting to overturn a lawful election result, Ingraham pays tribute to Trump’s alleged willingness to “fight for others.” Others? And get a load of this sheer nonsense:

[Lowry] writes as though what happened on January 6 was some sort of dangerous attempt to take down the republic instead of a bunch of desperate people who would have been easily handled by a sufficiently staffed Capitol police.

Why were these people “desperate”? Because of relentless lies, including on Laura’s network. Moreover, a crowd this angry and large would not have been “easily handled” with more Capitol police. Watch this clip, and keep in mind this was but one front in the battle for the Capitol:

Now we’re learning exactly how close the mob came to lawmakers and even to Vice President Pence. Scornfully minimizing the gravity of the harm is the old tactic of Trump’s loyal defenders. Scornful labeling of critics as “cowards” is also straight from the playbook.

It’s imperative that this time the senators not give in. It would be moral and patriotic malpractice to ignore the lessons of the painful last five years and simply assume that, at long last, Trump has defeated himself. He’s finally gone too far. 

There is no easy path to ridding our nation of Donald Trump or the movement he inspired. As Jonah has always said, this ends in tears. This ends in anguish. Republicans in the Senate have a choice: Take the risk to end it now, or appease the mob, appease talk radio and Fox, and hope and pray it ends later. There is only one responsible answer. Do the hard thing. Convict Donald Trump.

One last thing …

I mentioned this on a Dispatch Live, but I have a podcast dream (in the comments, tell me if you’d listen)—I’d love to do a podcast about battles. I’d do one season about great battles, another about forgotten battles, another about battles whose importance is under-appreciated, and so on.

I’m particularly obsessed with one of the forgotten fights—the incredibly strange and quirky Falklands War. And what is one of the wildest moments in a strange war? An almost impossibly-complex long-range bombing raid called Black Buck One—an incredible risk of a strategic bomber to achieve one single, vitally important bomb strike. Watch: