How Trump Endorsements Became Banal

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, officially endorsed Donald Trump's re-election campaign two Saturdays ago. The news came after the fact, and that's probably how she had planned it. “Today at the @WVGOP Winter Meeting luncheon, I announced my support for President Donald Trump,” Capito said. written theas if she were making a dutiful entry in a diary.

Republicans have reached the point in their primary season, even earlier than expected, where the party's putative leaders are lining up to reaffirm their allegiance to Trump. Several of Capito's senatorial colleagues joined the validation brigade around the same time: the second and third GOP members, John Cornyn of Texas and Jean Barrasso of Wyoming, alongside Trump's longtime rivals Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio from Florida. None of their endorsements caused much repercussion. Maybe a troublemaker surfaced on Cruz's old video call trump “a whining coward” in 2016 or Rubio the caller “the most vulgar person who ever aspired to the presidency. » But for the most part, the mind-numbing displays of conformity seemed inevitable, just as Trump's third consecutive presidential nomination seems to be.

The GOP once prided itself on being an alliance of free-thinking pioneers who embraced rugged individualism, a term popularized by Republican President Herbert Hoover. Now is not the time. Full acquiescence to Trump is now the most essential Republican “ethic,” or at least the primary prerequisite for the party’s viability. This near-total submission to the former boss has persisted, no matter how serious his actions or how clearly he articulates his authoritarian goals.

Yet the Republican Party now appears to have entered a new level of capitulation to Trump: a sort of ho-hum phase of acceptance, where slavish devotion has become almost commonplace, like joining a line at the grocery store . There is a certain power in bland, seemingly harmless gestures from people who know more. Authorization structures strengthen over time. Complicity calcifies in the darkness.

It’s natural to focus on the most glaring markers of Trump’s dominance and the failure of his enablers. You can laugh at the clownish stunts of sycophancy displayed by the Ramaswamy-Scott-Stefanik wing of the racecourse. Or marvel at the silence that greeted Trump's promise to suspend the Constitution or the legal finding that he was responsible for sexual abuse. Or be surprised by how quickly Republican lawmakers backtracked this week on a bipartisan border bill, which many of them had pushed for, simply because Trump insisted it be scrapped.

In some sense, however, harmless statements from the periphery, like Capito's message, are more stunning.

Capito, 70, served seven terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2014. She earned a reputation as a serious and relatively moderate lawmaker and forged numerous bipartisan alliances. She is the fifth senator in the Republican leadership and the ranking member of the Senate Environment Committee.

The daughter of a three-term West Virginia governor, Capito was born with the status of a “Republican in good standing,” a status she worked throughout her long career to maintain. It also makes her a “classic Republican who knows better.”

Like many of his Republican colleagues, Capito has expressed serious unease with Trump in the past. She says she “felt violated as an American” by the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, which she called an “incredibly traumatic” experience. She voted against convicting Trump in the Senate impeachment trial over the riot, but makes a point to say it was only because he was no longer in office (“My 'no' vote today is based solely on this constitutional belief”). Overall, Capito called Trump's conduct after the 2020 election “shameful” and said in a statement that “history will judge him harshly.”

Turns out Capito wouldn't do it.

Although she didn't expect Trump to be the Republican nominee again: “I don't think it's going to happen.” she says in October 2021 – Capito is now fully engaged in its restoration. His support on January 27 reflected an almost nostalgic nostalgia for Trump's tenure in the White House. “Our economy thrived, our nation was secure, and we worked to address the challenges at our border,” she wrote. Sure, Trump wasn't perfect, but what's a small violation, trauma, or national shame? Apparently this still beats the alternative, Nikki Haley.

Capito's office declined a request for comment.

This is not to single out Shelley Moore Capito as particularly cowardly or delinquent. Okay, maybe that's meant to single her out a little, but mostly as an object lesson in the insidious complicity of continuing by simply adding one's name to a stock. (Trump had yet to receive any support from a Republican senator at this point in the campaign eight years ago: Jeff Sessions of Alabama. became the first, February 28, 2016.)

Capito illustrates the power of chance. She could be any number of Republican officials. When he left the presidential race last month, Chris Christie mentioned others. “Look what’s happened in the last few days,” said Christie, the former New Jersey governor. said in his exit speech, taking note of the high-level Republican elected officials who were falling into line. He singled out Barrasso and House Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota.

Barrasso and Emmer are “good people who got into politics, I believe, for the right reasons,” Christie said in his speech. They are both well-bred institutionalists who have been excoriated by the former president in the past: Trump dismissed Barrasso as Mitch McConnell's “lackey” and “office stamp” and torpedoed the attempt to Emmer to replace Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House, ridiculing him. as a “globalist RINO”. Barrasso and Emmer would probably prefer that their party leave Trump.

And yet they supported him. “They know better,” Christie said. “I know they know better.” From first-hand experience, in Christie's case: he supported Trump in 2016 for what he now admits were purely political reasons. He then embarked on a long and sometimes demeaning tenure as one of Trump's chief political butlers during his presidency.

In his speech last month, Christie said his biggest frustration with the Republican primaries was that so many Republican officials and candidates were privately complaining about Trump while remaining reluctant to condemn him in public. (Of course, many Democrats are breaking into a similar dance about President Joe Biden and his age, publicly expressing joy that he is running for re-election at 81…he has the energy of a 35 year old man!-while moaning endlessly in private about his age.)

Shared tolerance for conduct like Trump's tends to build over time. “People are more likely to accept unethical behavior from others if that behavior develops gradually (on a slippery slope),” according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychologycited by my colleague Anne Applebaum in her 2020 work Atlantic cover story, “History will judge the accomplices.”

“What amazes me is that there are so few exceptions,” Eric S. Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, told me. Edelman, a career foreign service officer, is a friend of the Cheney family and a staunch critic of Trump.

“I know ambition in Washington is kind of a garden sin, right? » said Edelman. Partisan considerations are inevitable, he added, “but by and large, the people I saw in Washington, whether I thought their policies were good or bad, had some level of expectation that that they be motivated by what is best for the nation. »

Pioneers, by definition, are exceptions. Republicans, from Theodore Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, were initially seen by their party as thugs or extremists. But the biggest factor for most politicians is almost always longevity, Mark Sanford, a former Republican representative and governor of South Carolina, told me. “It's about staying in the game as long as possible, which is really the opposite of leadership,” said Sanford, who himself was an anti-Trump Republican, which essentially cost him his job in Congress (he was beaten). during a Republican primary in 2018). “Leadership is, I believe, This is my true north; I'll stand where I'll stand.”

Edelman cited a phrase attributed to Ted Cruz in 2016, after Trump defeated him in a bitter nomination fight, smearing the senator's wife and father. Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention that year. “History is not kind to the man who holds Mussolini’s jacket,” Cruz told his friends, according to an account by my colleague Tim Alberta in his 2019 book: American carnage.

Cruz has since become one of Trump's main accomplices in a rotten party with coattails for the former president.

I remember being in Cleveland the night Cruz gave his mutinous convention speech. It was a moving and courageous performance, the first (and last) time I felt so much admiration for him. The bloodlust in the room was palpable as it became clear he was getting no support. “Vote your conscience” was Cruz’s crescendo phrase, which drew the loudest boos of the evening. They lingered like a warning siren, and if Cruz ignored it then, he has heeded it ever since. Add it to the list.

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