It was Barack Obama’s final international trip before Donald Trump was to occupy the Oval Office. The venue was the Summit of Pacific Nations in Lima, Peru, and at the first opportunity he was taken aside and asked what could be expected from Donald Trump. Being diplomatic, Obama cautiously observed, “Give him a chance. Wait and see.”
Well, now we know what couldn’t be fully known back then. The events of the last two weeks, with their massive protests and lingering COVID-19 threats, have unleashed a new unfolding in the Trump administration. Every time some calamity struck the White House in the past there would be the endless chorus of voices opining that Trump was done. He survived all of it, as he depended on a base that appeared rock solid and a Republican Party that folded their cards every time the President forced them to comply.
This time seems different – not because of COVID-19 or even the massive protests, but because of high-level Republican voices that appear to have crossed the Rubicon. We’re not talking about perennial Senate condoners like Mitch McConnel or Lyndsay Graham, but prominent figures in the broader party, some even former party leaders or military leaders, like George W. Bush, James Mattis, Mitt Romney and even Colin Powell. These are the bedrock of the old-guard establishment that carried a sense of propriety, accountability and military experience. The prospect of sending military troops into American cities proved so alarming that they broke from compliance or silence.
But the disenchantment runs deeper, threatening to shatter the party in the upcoming November elections. For a precariously long time, Republicans went along with all the shenanigans, believing they had passed the worst of it following the Mueller report and failed impeachment process. Yet they knew they had deviated a long way from the traditional conservative moderation of the Grand Old Party.
Whatever happened to the ability for moderate Republicans like John McCain to reach across the aisle to find common ground? And what about a deficit so massive that it has become the greatest in American history, even prior to the pandemic? Trump had promised to eliminate it during his election but then immediately reversed course, creating extensive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The Republican penchant for fiscal propriety is nowhere to be found in the Trump universe and implications for the upcoming election are dreadful.
But there’s more – lots more. Donald Trump has delighted in ridiculing Obama, especially on economic matters. He called his predecessor a disaster when it came to trade, yet the Federal Reserve noted that Trump has overseen the worst trade deficit there has ever been, other than that of George W. Bush.
Immigration has actually increased during Trump’s tenure, despite all the rhetoric and race-baiting language. The immigrant share of the American population is now at an all-time high. America’s relationship with the world – long a Republican priority – is now in shambles, as are the alliances Republicans had a hand in crafting, like NATO, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the UN Human Rights Treaty and they fret over their president’s abandoning of key principles of the World Trade Organization.
Republicans have always understood that America is divided along so many fault lines that the party, like the Democrats, strove to keep from spinning out of control. They strove to adhere closely to their founding principles of good government, order, law and global guardianship. All of these have been shredded and they can hardly recognize themselves anymore in the mirror.
I have been enlightened and assisted in comprehending this dangerous compliance by a remarkable article in the most recent Atlantic, written with profound insight by Anne Applebaum and titled History Will Judge the Compliant. She writes of how people who should have known better, and indeed did, nevertheless capitulated to both Nazi and Soviet regimes in order to survive. In so doing, she paints a not so pretty picture of political excuse making. She writes of those who “leaked” damaging information about Trump but refused to identify themselves in the process. Applebaum sees this as compliance instead of opposition to the president.
But it is the excuses such people use that are truly revealing and live on in politics everywhere. She t lists some of the key justifications for why Republicans don’t speak up:
- Nothing I do can make a difference anyway
- I will personally benefit by not speaking out
- I must remain close to power in order to keep it from getting worse
- It’s an awesome thing being so close to power and I don’t want to lose it
- My side might be flawed, but the opposition is much worse
Slowly, inevitably, thankfully, such reasonings are wearing thin, largely because a few principled members of the Republican party and the military deemed it was time to do away with all the collusion, all the compliance. When the president begins losing the economic, political, racial and military argument all at the same time, his base can never be enough to protect or sustain him. Obama advised that citizens just wait and see. Americans are doing just that and now want to turn the page. All that compliance could itself ruin the party.