On Thursday, President Donald Trump was asked about a false report that California Sen. Kamala Harris might not be eligible to be vice president.
Rather than dismiss them out of hand, he said this:
“I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements, and by the way the lawyer who wrote the piece is highly qualified, very talented. I assumed the Democrats would’ve checked that out before she gets chosen for vice president.”
Shame on Trump. But anyone who acts surprised that the President was willing to push a lie about his political opponents into the public space has been residing on another planet over the last four-plus years. This is who Trump is and what he does. Birtherism is, literally, how he got his start in politics.
The real story at this point, then, is not necessarily Trump’s willingness to engage in baseless speculation about an untrue storyline. The real story is the silence that has – and will continue – to greet Trump’s ridiculous remark from the Republican establishment and its elected leaders.
Because it’s that silence, and the tacit acceptance that “Trump is Trump,” that will define the GOP long after Trump leaves office – whether involuntarily in 2021 or four years later. The willingness to simply swallow known falsehoods or dismiss them with a “I didn’t see the President’s remarks” or “I’m sorry, I have to get to a meeting” is what will, ultimately, do the lasting damage for a Republicans.
The breaking of principles – like, you know, truth – is how party and movements die, or at least badly injure themselves. If a political party abandons what it believes in order to follow a single person who openly mocks what the party once stood for, then what is holding the party together? It’s a cult of personality, not a gathering of like-minded people all working toward a common set of goals.
And time and again during the Trump candidacy and presidency, we’ve seen the GOP walk away from long-held principles.
Its devotion to balanced budgets and reducing the debt load on future generations? Gone.
Its commitment to block attempts by a president to run the country by executive orders and end-runs around Congress? Gone.
Its fealty to family values, as it relates to marriage and extramarital affairs? Gone.
Its support for international trade agreements? Gone.
Again and again and again, Republican elected officials have walked away from supposedly deeply held beliefs in order to bend themselves to the point of breaking to align with Trump. (Who, not for nothing, has been all over the ideological map in his life.)
Why? Because they are afraid of what Trump might do to them politically if they don’t get in line. The ruins of former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s political career – he wrote a book suggesting the GOP had abandoned its principles to support Trump – are on the minds of every Republican politician who considers breaking with the President on, well, anything. No one wants to be the next Flake or the next Rep. Justin Amash, driven from the party for having the temerity to suggest the commander in chief made a mistake or broke with principle.
This lying down – call it acquiescence – has consequences. Primarily that the Trump wing of the Republican Party gets more and more emboldened, and more and more powerful, while the “establishment” wing of the party withers. Every time Trump lies or slanders or engages in race-baiting and the elected leadership of the Republican Party refuses to condemn him and the thinking that informs him, they allow that viewpoint to expand within their party.
Here’s one real-world example. On Tuesday, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R) won a House runoff in Georgia’s 14th district, a victory that virtually ensures she will be the next member of Congress from the strongly conservative area. Greene has, among other things, expressed support for QAnon, an conspiracy theory that the FBI has warned could be a domestic terror threat, as well as made anti-Semitic and xenophobic comments.
When Greene’s comments initially came out in June, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, through a spokesman, called them “appalling” and said he had “no tolerance for them.” But, McCarthy stayed neutral in the runoff – unwilling to publicly oppose Greene. In the wake of her victory, Trump tweeted out praise of her as “strong on everything and never gives up - a real WINNER!” And McCarthy said he “look[s] forward” to her winning in November and said he would seat her on congressional committees if she does.
In so doing, McCarthy is allowing the normalization of a dangerous conspiracy theorist who, among other things, has shown support for the idea that there is a secret group of Democratic operatives running a pedophilia ring in Washington. (This widely debunked conspiracy theory is known colloquially as “Pizzagate.”)
“I’m very excited about that now there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it,” Greene said in 2017.
And there are signs everywhere that Greene is just the leading edge of those who will attempt to bring their wild views into the mainstream using the Republican Party of Donald Trump as their vehicle. Oregon Republicans nominated a Senate candidate who has spoken glowingly of Q. Lauren Boebert, who beat Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton in a Republican primary last month in a district Trump won handily in 2016, said this during that campaign: “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real, because it only means America is getting stronger and better.”
This is the natural next step from the hostile takeover of the Republican Party that Trump conducted during the 2016 election – and that the GOP establishment has enabled ever since. If QAnon supporters can rightly lay claim to being a part of the Republican Party, then what does it actually mean to be a Republican anymore? Especially when the party’s leader regularly breaks with long-held principles that stood as pillars for the entire GOP tent, and regularly engages in the racist, xenophobic attacks designed solely to improve his own political position?
The reality Republicans face is this: A party without any principles isn’t a party at all.