The rebuke is part of the coverup
How the occasional denunciation gives the GOP cover to enact Trump's agenda
The president of the United States took to Twitter this week to ask a group of progressive congresswomen of color to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." The president's racist fulminations, obviously aimed at the self-styled "Squad" of newly-elected Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib (born in Detroit), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (born in Queens), Ayanna Pressley (born in Cincinnati), and Ilhan Omar (born in Somalia), generated stern newspaper headlines and outrage from out-of-office Republicans like former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, but comparatively little reaction from elected members of the party.
Then on Monday, a flurry of Republican officeholders bent to public pressure and issued tame statements of distaste for the president's behavior. Most of those who did speak up, like New York Rep. Elise Stefanek and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, made sure to include a blistering attack on Ocasio-Cortez and her allies as part of their "denunciations." Others, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, condemned the tweets but refused to admit that they were racist. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far said nothing. This is a pattern that goes back to the very first days of Donald Trump's campaign in 2015 — long periods of silence about and complicity with the president's daily outrages and racist agenda, with sporadic pushback assigned to suburb-soothers before everyone moves along and forgets it ever happened.
The cast of this choreographed dance has changed substantially since the 2018 midterms. Gone are former House Speaker Paul Ryan and his intermittent, hangdog denunciations of President Trump's outrages, former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker's G-rated acts of calculated pushback, and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake's tortured indecision. The harrumphing is now assigned to people like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Will Hurd. But make no mistake, the song remains the same. Republicans at every level of government eagerly grant their cooperation with, if not their outright endorsement of, Trump's ugly racism, while a handful of public-facing figures seek to reassure wavering moderates that they are still in the right party.
That's the real role that Stefanek and Romney are playing. Throughout the Trump era, mainline Republicans have needed to be able to look at their party and see people that reminded them of the good old days — tax cuts and stupid wars and gratuitous donor servicing and state-looting all delivered politely and with a carefully curated script genuflecting to racial and gender equality, a time when the frothing racists, theocratic woman-haters, and nativist goons were mostly quarantined in state government down in Birmingham and Tallahassee or shuttled around the grifter campus lecture circuit or given mid-afternoon slots on Fox. If you are a certain kind of wealthy white person who benefited from the policies of the modern GOP but still got chills from watching old Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, you could usually erect a pontoon bridge to cross the churning river of cognitive dissonance created by your voting choices because you rarely had to come face to face with what your party really was all along.
Trump has burned that party to the ground and rebuilt it in the image of one of his garish monuments, turning the GOP into a full employment program for charlatans and jerks and people who wish the South had won the Civil War. The cranks and fabulists and neo-confederates aren't backbenchers in Charleston anymore but members of Congress and senators and senior advisers to the president.
But if you're one of the dwindling few moderate Republicans, the occasional rebuke of the president by party elites with properly fitting suits and presumably pure hearts allows you to believe that Trump and his minions are hostile occupiers of a basically normal institution in American politics, and that once the Trump vulgarians are cleared out, there can be a return to normal. They allow you to stay in the fold because, well, things are pretty great for you right now. The retirement portfolio is on a seemingly endless upward trajectory, and yes, you are enjoying the tax cuts and deregulation and sure you kind of roll your eyes at the president sometimes but secretly you aren't that unhappy with him.
That's why I almost preferred the eerie Sunday silence to the tepid Monday afternoon grimacing. If no one in Trump's party had been willing to speak out after the president's Sunday outburst, it might at least have achieved the permanent separation of a sliver of the electorate from the Republican Party, people who maybe can't stand that the leader of their party is openly demeaning minorities and taking joy in prying wailing toddlers from the arms of desperate refugees. I'm not naïve — there weren't ever all that many of these voters, and even fewer remain in the party today. But it was definitely more than just the staff of the National Review. A few defected to Democrats in 2018, a few stayed home, and because even small shifts in public support for the two parties can be decisive in a closely divided electorate, it was enough to capture swing districts and help deliver a majority to Democrats.
For Democrats who draw succor from intermittent reminders that there are decent people on the other side of the aisle, ask yourself this question: Besides allowing a certain kind of GOPer to believe in a fairy tale, what has this kind of feeble congressional opposition from elected Republicans ever actually accomplished? Apart from a single, dramatic health-care vote, a handful of Republicans always tut-tut only, in the end, to roll over and help the president pursue his policy goals. Not one of them is willing to hold up the president's policy plans for a single moment for something as trivial as an apology, let alone a sustained change in behavior. By refusing to exercise the power they have, ironically, they continue to help the president consolidate his.
There is one more reason to find this soon-to-be-memory-holed barrage of Trump criticism to be pointless and even distasteful: It perpetuates the belief, still clung to by many moderate Democrats and committed institutionalists, that when Trump is gone there can be a return to merry bipartisanship and normalcy in American politics, like somehow when Trump disappears Trumpism will be vaporized with him and Marco Rubio will once again become a kingmaker in Republican politics.
This is perhaps the greatest delusion of all. Because beneath today's carefully tailored statements is a group of lawmakers who have not just eagerly embraced and benefited from the president's nonstop culture war but who have become so untethered from the principles of democracy that they are willing to deploy voter suppression and vicious procedural escalations to protect their ill-gotten power. Where was the outrage when the president was trying to rig the census to benefit Republican power at the expense of minorities? The answer is "nowhere" and that's why you can ignore all of these overwrought apologies. Tomorrow everyone in the Republican Party will go right back to work and none of it will change until they have been thrown out of office.