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Republicans Have Stockholm Syndrome, and It’s Getting Worse

The GOP has stopped resisting President Trump and started accelerating his race to the bottom.

President Donald Trump holds a press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the White House Rose Garden on Oct. 16. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump holds a press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the White House Rose Garden on Oct. 16. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The lobotomization of the Republican Party appeared complete last year when the same GOP paladins who had denounced Donald Trump as a “lunatic trying to get ahold of nuclear weapons” (Marco Rubio), as a bigot who was guilty of “the textbook definition of a racist comment” (Paul Ryan), and as a “narcissist,” “serial philanderer,” “pathological liar,” and “bully” (Ted Cruz) nevertheless endorsed him for the most powerful position in the world. Tragedy turned to farce (or is it the other way around?) after the emergence of the “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape on October 7, 2016. Republicans such as Sens. John Thune, Mike Crapo, and Deb Fischer called for Trump to leave the race on the grounds that he was unfit for office, only to change their minds and re-endorse him when it became evident that he was still polling strongly among base voters.

But the Republicans’ race to the bottom — to the absolute lowest moral and intellectual depths — wasn’t over last year, and it’s not over now. It’s still continuing, with even supposedly “normal,” “moderate,” “mainstream” Republicans increasingly echoing Trump’s know-nothing effusions.

In Virginia, Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and counselor to “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush, is attacking his Democratic opponent for governor, Ralph Northam, for being too sympathetic to immigrants and too unsympathetic to Confederate monuments. One particularly incendiary commercial accuses Northam of “increasing the threat of MS-13,” a drug gang from El Salvador that is evoked with pictures of tattooed gang-bangers who actually belong to a rival outfit. Gillespie’s tendentious reasoning? As lieutenant governor, Northam voted against a bill in Virginia’s Senate that would have prohibited the establishment of any “sanctuary cities,” even though Virginia does not have any such cities. MS-13 has long been a favorite Trump target, symbolizing the supposed menace of Latino immigration.

Gillespie’s successor at the RNC, Ronna Romney McDaniel, has been equally eager to serve as a Trump echo chamber. Her Twitter feed gives sycophancy a bad name. Recent tweets: “No one recognizes the importance of women’s empowerment better than @IvankaTrump. She’s paving the way worldwide”; “Wonderful to finally have a @POTUS who isn’t ashamed to stand up for religious liberties”; and “Ratings for unpatriotic NFL declining? Shocked.” If Trump claimed the moon was made of Swiss cheese, McDaniel would be mocking anyone who said it was actually Camembert.

In her willingness to serve as a Trump enabler, McDaniel is matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the senior-most Republican officials in the land. Who can forget Vice President Mike Pence going to the Colts-49ers game on Oct. 8 for the express purpose of walking out to express disapproval of players kneeling during the national anthem? Trump has fixated on this non-issue as a way to mobilize his white, working-class base by anathematizing wealthy African-American athletes. And Pence is happy to play along. Just as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is happy to vouch for Trump as a non-racist despite decades of Archie Bunker-style comments suggesting otherwise. “His heart’s in the right place,” Ryan said, making one wonder whether he has access to a super-secret EKG.

The leaders of Congress seem to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, which by now should really be renamed Republican Syndrome. There, on Monday, was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell singing kumbaya with Trump in the White House Rose Garden only hours after the president disavowed any blame for “not getting the job done” legislatively. “I’m not gong to blame myself, I’ll be honest,” Trump said. (When has he ever blamed himself for anything?) “They’re not getting the job done.” In case there is any doubt about who “they” is, Trump has been explicit in calling out McConnell as a weak leader, tweeting in August, “The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed!” McConnell nevertheless pledged fealty to his abuser. “Contrary to what some of you may have reported,” he dutifully intoned, “we are together totally on this agenda to move America forward.”

The excuse for this craven behavior is that all qualms about Trump — the least presidential president in the whole history of this republic, or any other — must be subordinated to the Republican policy agenda. You know, the agenda that Trump is not actually passing.

This GOP attitude was taken to its logical if laughable extreme when Sen. Rob Portman, another supposed Republican adult, was asked about the victory in Alabama’s Senate special election primary of far-right rabble-rouser Roy Moore, who makes Trump seem wonkish by comparison. Portman’s only response? “He’s going to be for tax reform, I think.” Never mind about the Constitution, which Moore and Trump both seek to shred in their own ways — Moore is opposed to the separation of church and state, Trump to the freedom of the press. (He thinks that “it is frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”) As long as they’re for tax cuts, we’re all good!

There are, to be sure, a few honorable exceptions — prominent Republicans who are willing to speak the truth about the naked emperor — but they are a miniscule minority in a nation in which their party dominates every branch of government.

One of the most prominent truth-tellers is Sen. John McCain, who voted against the abomination that Republican leaders slapped together at the last minute to make good on Trump’s pledge to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare. Receiving the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, McCain gave a typically courageous, clear-eyed speech Monday in which he denounced Trumpism root and branch. “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century,” he said, “to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.” But then McCain has long been a “maverick” distrusted by the same rank-and-file Republicans who now eagerly embrace Trump, his opposite in every respect.

McCain’s fellow senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, also has been outspoken in denouncing Trump. “We pretended the emperor wasn’t naked,” he wrote in his recent book, Conscience of a Conservative. “Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.” Flake’s reward for his truth-telling? He is in danger of losing next year’s primary to the odious Kelli Ward, an overly eager office-seeker who, following McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer this summer, immediately called on him to quit the Senate so that the governor could appoint her in his place. Civilized conduct is not only unnecessary in today’s GOP, it is actually distrusted as the sign of a “RINO (Republican in Name Only) cuck.”

Sen. Bob Corker, one of Trump’s initial establishment enablers, has recently taken to telling the truth about the president, but only because he has decided not to seek re-election. The reaction to Corker’s comments — he said that Trump is treating the presidency like a “reality show,” that his aides are desperately trying to “contain him,” and that he is setting us on “the path to World War III” — has been telling. Other Republicans aren’t stepping forward to disagree, and Corker says that virtually all of his fellow Republican senators agree with him. But instead of saying in public what they say in private, these invertebrate officeholders try to change the subject or simply refuse to comment.

They are a profile in cowardice, these Republicans, and they are making a mockery of their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution.” If they truly believe that Trump is not fit for office, then they have an obligation to impeach and remove him. Instead they choose to act as if Trump is their partner in governing. In the process, the entire Republican Party is making itself ever-more complicit in Trump’s crimes — which range from offenses against good sense, rationality, and common decency to, perhaps, actual violations of the law such as obstruction of justice.

It becomes ever harder to disagree with the verdict of foreign-policy sage Robert Kagan, like me an erstwhile Republican, who writes that the GOP in its current form is doomed and that Republicans who cannot stomach Trumpism “should change their registration and start voting for Democratic moderates and centrists, as some Republicans did in Virginia recently, to give them a leg up in their fight against the party’s left wing.” As I’ve explained before, I have my qualms about the Democratic Party, which is lurching to the left, but I am done, done, done with the GOP after more than 30 years as a loyal Republican.

This is truly Trump’s party, and that leaves me to root for Democrats to win a landslide victory in the midterm elections next fall. I have my differences with many Democratic candidates, but on the most important issue facing our nation — whether Trump is fit for office — they are right and Republicans are a disgrace.

Correction, Oct. 19, 2017: As lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam voted against a bill in Virginia’s Senate that would have prohibited the establishment of “sanctuary cities.” An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that he was in Congress when he voted against the bill.

About the Author

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”

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