Monday, March 11, 2024

The Past Decade’s GOP ‘Violets’: Making Peace With the Inevitable

Recently, the late Philip Kerr’s historical detective novel March Violets has profoundly disturbed me. Its title refers to German opportunists who only turned Nazi after newly installed Chancellor Adolf Hitler used the Reichstag fire as an excuse to push through an “Enabling Act” that gave him unchallenged authority in March 1933.

Or, as Kerr’s detective hero, Bernie Gunther, mordantly observes, “Everyone in Germany was somebody different before March 1933.”

The term can be easily adapted to the current situation in the Republican Party, as another would-be nationalist strongman, after failing in one attempt to overthrow the government, angles toward seizing power in a more meaningful way than he ever thought possible.

I took the image accompanying this post as darkness descended on Capitol Hill in November 2015. Five months before, Donald Trump had announced his candidacy for Presidency. Almost no member of the Senate or House of Representatives could imagine then how their lives were about to change.

Just as the Nazis were a minority party even up to March 1933, the MAGA faction did not constitute a majority of the GOP through much of the spring of 2016. But, just like the splintered anti-Nazi groups did not form a united front against Hitler, Trump opponents could not consolidate against him in time to slow his march to the party nomination.

In both cases, opponents bided their time, sure that the bumptious interloper would make a fatal mistake. It didn’t happen.

Not in November 2016, when Trump, contrary to pre-election polls, pulled out an Electoral College victory.

Not in February 2020, when, despite clear evidence that he had pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to announce an investigation of his likely Democratic rival Joe Biden, all but one Senate Republican voted to acquit him on impeachment charges.

Not in November and December 2020, when, having lost the popular and Electoral College counts, he refused to accept the results.

And not after January 6, 2021, when—despite fearing for their lives in a Capitol Hill riot instigated by the President—only six more Senate Republicans joined Mitt Romney in voting to convict Trump of inciting the insurrection.

The first Senate failure to convict Trump merely encouraged him to act even more drastically. The second failure was more consequential: The “violets” who privately (and, in some surprising cases, publicly) scorned and loathed him lost their chance to bar him from office again, move their party and nation in a new direction, and enjoy peace of mind.

Those Who Know Better

Now, with Trump running the table in the Republican primaries (defeated only in DC and Vermont), the ranks of party dissenters are even thinner than previously.

Falling by the wayside, accepting the inevitable by endorsing the presumptive nominee, are New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu (who had once called the former President “f****** crazy”) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who called Trump “morally responsible” for inciting the January 6 riot). It may well be only a matter of time before the former President’s last rival for the nomination, Nikki Haley, ends up endorsing him, too.

The support of the MAGA faction for Trump is understandable; after all, they are true believers.

The Trump “violets,” however, are a different case. They have every reason, ideologically and personally, to refuse to endorse him. Yet instead, they try to exceed MAGA supporters with a shameless backing of everything he says or does, as seen in the cases of:

*Ted Cruz, who, despite calling Trump a “sniveling coward” for, among other reasons, suggesting that Cruz’s wife was unattractive and falsely implying that Cruz’s father was involved with the JFK assassination, ended up championing in the Senate Trump’s bid not to certify results in the 2020 election.

*Lindsey Graham, who, after calling Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” in 2016 and even threatened the White House with removing him from the Presidency if he didn’t denounce the Jan. 6 rioters, engaged in a public reconciliation.

*Kevin McCarthy, who, after saying Trump “bears responsibility” for the riot, flew down to Mar-a-Lago three weeks after the insurrection, and tried vainly to gain more significant support as Speaker of the House from the former President.

J.D. Vance: A Hideous Case

Yet the evolution of J.D. Vance—from acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy author and advocate for “flyover country” to one of Trump’s staunchest Senate defenders—has been especially hideous.

The Ohio Senator’s call a month ago for Trump to ignore any adverse Supreme Court rulings epitomizes the GOP violets at their most shameless—turning on a dime from implacable opposition to topping the MAGA crowd in overheated rhetoric and extreme positions.

Back in 2016, Vance told talk-show host Charlie Rose, “I’m a Never Trump guy; I never liked him,” and tweeted, “What an idiot.” 

But his February interview with George Stephanopolous on ABC’s “This Week” set a marker for threats that no mainstream politician had supported in decades.

Once Trump embarks on a second term, Vance said, he should “fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, [and] replace them with our people.”  If the court ruled against Trump, the ex-President would be justified in taking the same position that Andrew Jackson had so memorably expressed it in the 1830s: the Chief Justice “has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

Many Hillbilly Elegy reviewers praised Vance’s rise from poverty to Yale Law School graduate as a victory of will and determination over circumstance.

But evidently, Vance must have missed in his education any mention of the Jacksonian Era, because “Old Hickory’s” response to the Supreme Court ruling on Cherokee land rights that the Senator alluded to has become one of the darkest stains on that President’s record, as it removed an entire indigenous population.

Surely, Vance’s statement that unlike Mike Pence, he would have permitted competing slates of electors when the 2020 vote counts were presented to Congress, has put him on Trump’s list of 2024 Veep hopefuls.

Why the New ‘Violets’ Fear Their Party Leader

At no other time in its history has the Republican Party been so overshadowed by a single man. Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan never caused so much fear of their displeasure among officeholders. Once has to ask, “Why are so many so worried?”

Let me enumerate the fears that may beset the Trump “violets”:

*Being “primaried”: In 1950, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, a 24-year incumbent and conservative Democrat, lost his seat when colleague Joseph McCarthy, criticized by the Marylander for perpetuating a “fraud” and a “hoax” with his charges of widespread Communist infiltration of the State Department, aided the campaign of his Republican challenger. These days, challenges come even before Election Day, when an incumbent might be forced to take less compromising positions lest he face an opponent from his own party’s fringes. Liz Cheney’s loss of her once-safe House seat, after she had voted for his impeachment for inciting the Capitol riot, served notice that Trump could rile up the MAGA base against them. Of the nine House members who joined Cheney in voting against Trump, three lost primaries when they sought reelection, and four others chose to retire.

*Blackmail: The Presidency President gave Trump access to all kinds of secrets about domestic and foreign figures. But, as Andrea Bernstein’s September 2022 ProPublica piece notes, his immersion in the world of New York tabloid journalism had already taught him how to trade gossip for maximum advantage. The one politician who has gone on record to describe his methods is former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, made vulnerable when her teenaged son went on a drunken spree that landed him in the hospital. Annoyed a few years later that a tunnel project nearing final state approval would run from the Atlantic City Expressway almost to a casino run by then-rival Steve Wynn, Trump called Whitman to let her know it would be “too bad” if the press found out about the youth’s escapade. Nearly 20 years later, when Whitman refused to endorse his Presidential bid, Trump sent her a letter repeating the same veiled threat. Whitman rebuffed him each time. How many politicians have followed her lead? (At least one Southern senator, widely rumored to be gay, presents an especially tantalizing possibility for such treatment.)

*Doxxing: The digital age has made it possible to find out and disseminate information on public figures that had previously been closely held. Trump used such cyberbullying by revealing the cellphone number of Lindsey Graham, who briefly ran against him in the 2016 Republican primaries. The South Carolina shortly found himself barraged with crank calls.

*Harassment: Being accosted at restaurants, airports, and other public places has become far more of a hazard for officeholders in the Age of Trump. After Graham briefly broke with Trump after the January 6 riot, Trump supporters harassed him at Reagan National Airport with shouts of “Traitor!” and “You’re a liar!” (That same week, Democratic congressional members received similar treatment.) Even when they don’t defy Trump himself but one of his minions, they may be harassed, as when allies of Jim Jordan conducted a pressure campaign on his behalf for Speaker of the House that resulted in threats against them, their offices, or spouses.

*Lost TV commentary gigs: A Trump opponent might not only lose his office but also standing in the party that could jeopardize potential income from appearing on TV. Contributors to Fox News—those who have moved beyond being mere “guests”—are paid even as they build their corporate brands. Displeasure from Trump or his base can lead to the loss of brands and bucks.

*Lost lobbying fees: Despite sporadic reform attempts over the years, government officials can often expect cushy paydays after their tenures conclude by joining lobbying firms. These, too, can wither on the vine if Trump is on one of his vendettas. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reported last week that they have been warned if they didn’t vote in the DC primary, they shouldn’t expect access if Trump returns to the White House.

*Threats to themselves: Bodyguards, bulletproof vests, and assassination fears have become more of a way of life for Capitol Hill members—indeed, any government or electoral functionary. Don’t think that House and Senate members didn’t shudder at the thought of cowering from another mob as they voted to let Trump off the hook in the second impeachment trial—and even to join him by voting against refusing to certify Biden as the 2020 winner. Romney, Cheney, and Rep. John Katko spent heavily on personal security after voting to impeach Trump in 2021, according to this 2022 Axios article.

*Threats to family members: The attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul surely resonated with the then-Speaker’s colleagues on the GOP side of the aisle. Trump’s subsequent embrace of swiftly rebunked conspiracy theories about the attack could in no way have reassured the GOP Violets that he would come to their aid if another fanatic tried to perpetrate violence on their loved ones as well.

As I considered the impact of a Trump denunciation on members of the party he took over, I was reminded of the final, terrifying image of the 1978 remake of the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. So was the remake’s director, Philip Kaufman, who told The Hollywood Reporter’s David Weiner six years ago, “[Donald Sutherland’s pod shriek] at the end of the film could be a very Trumpian scream. The way Trump points to the press in the back of the auditorium and everybody turns, you get that scary ‘poddy’ feeling. There’s a kind of contagion that’s going on here.”

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