The GOP’s Ongoing Moral Surrender to Trump

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The elected officials who quietly defend Donald Trump’s immorality even though they know better are just as bad as the comically devoted Trump courtiers.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Mushy Equivocations

“I didn’t come here,” Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina complained last week, “to have the president as a boss or a candidate as a boss. I came here to pass good, solid policy.” Tillis was referring to Republicans who were abandoning a deal on border security because they thought reaching a solution with President Joe Biden would hurt Trump’s electoral chances in the fall. It is immoral, Tillis added, to look “the other way because you think this is the linchpin for President Trump to win.”

As Bruce Willis’s fictional cop John McClane would say: Welcome to the party, pal. In theory, Republicans care deeply about the situation on the southern United States border. In reality, most of them seem to care only about whatever Trump wants at any given moment, and what Trump wants is to take refuge in the Oval Office from his multiple legal problems. Tillis’s outburst, although welcome, was a rare moment of candor from a senior Republican senator about the degree to which the party’s once and future nominee has gutted the GOP of any remaining principles.

For years, Trump has attacked and obliterated anything like virtue in the Republican Party, a process that regularly features Republicans pulling their political souls from their bodies and handing them to Trump in jars for display on his mantle at Mar-a-Lago. (Ted Cruz going from the potential conscience of the 2016 GOP convention to a Trump-praising, phone-banking flunky is only one such example.)

But some of the less noticed enablers in the GOP are those who remain quiet in the face of Trump’s ghoulish attacks on others rather than risk Trump turning his ire—and his MAGA mob—on them. When challenged, they speak up only long enough to make excuses for Trump and engage in moral obfuscation over issues that they must certainly know are not remotely complicated, such as whether the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party should defame a woman he’s been found liable for sexually abusing.

Senators Tim Scott and James Lankford, for example, were both asked over the weekend about the $83.3 million defamation jury verdict against Trump. Scott’s Trump sycophancy has now filled the core of his political existence, so there’s no point in discussing his excuse-making and what-abouting. But Lankford was hardly better. On Face the Nation, Margaret Brennan asked him about the huge penalty levied on Trump “after a separate jury found that he had sexually assaulted” E. Jean Carroll. Brennan then lobbed the Oklahoma senator one of the softest of softballs: “Does it give you any pause about him returning to office?”

Lankford politely refused to swing at the pitch. Instead, he picked up the ball and tagged himself out:

It doesn’t. Obviously, these are legal cases. I don’t want to jump in the middle of a legal case. It’s been interesting the number of legal cases that have come up against President Trump and then have failed and had been dropped or had been kicked out of the courts … He’s already said he’s going to challenge [this one]. So let the courts actually make their decisions and let the American people make their decisions.

Despite Lankford’s senatorial circumspection here, these “legal cases” have already been decided, and Trump can only challenge the awards, not the verdicts that he’s liable for sexual abuse and multiple instances of defaming the victim.

How hard would it have been for Lankford—a former Baptist minister—to say something about how he does not care for the way Trump speaks, and about the need to be respectful to all women? I worked for a senator; I know that they can summon such phrases from the ether at will. And yet, Lankford resorted to mumbling about the cases against Trump that “failed,” implicitly supporting the idea that Trump’s legal troubles stem from partisan prosecutions and not because the former president was found liable for sexual abuse, defamed his victim, and may have engaged in several felonies.

Republicans such as Lankford are, in their mushy equivocations, possibly more destructive than people such as Cruz and Scott, or even Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, all of whom have chosen to become comically obsequious Trump courtiers. When Stefanik refers to people convicted in the January 6 insurrection as “hostages,” the vapor of her 180-proof ambition is so enveloping, its fumes so eye-watering, that few but the MAGA faithful can take her seriously.

When Lankford quietly throws shade at the entire judicial system, however, he is offering an escape hatch not for Trump but for ordinary Americans who otherwise would be appalled at what Trump has done. Such statements are part of a years-long Republican effort to create a permission structure for Trump supporters, to model how a reasonable person can dismiss Trump’s astounding disregard for the law and even for basic decency and yet still vote for him and other GOP candidates in the name of some greater good.

The greater good, of course, is to ensure that Republicans can keep living in Washington, D.C., and exercising power on behalf of a shrinking political minority. Republicans might phrase this differently: The party’s overall position is that the Democrats are so awful, and so dangerous to the nation, that the ends will now always justify the means. Rather than oppose or even criticize Trump, they retreat into the fog of “supporting the nominee” and saving the country from Biden and the left-wing deep-state cabal that supposedly controls him.

A tiny handful of elected Republicans have said that they will not vote for Trump. (They won’t vote for Biden either, of course, and if Trump wins—well, such is the price of saving the republic while keeping one’s hands clean.) Lankford cannot muster even that much principle. But his refusal to criticize Trump can’t save the senator from his own party: The Oklahoma GOP just censured him merely for doing his job and participating in the effort to create border legislation.

Lankford is not up for reelection until 2028. When GOP leaders cannot express even a hint of principle on fundamental moral issues for fear of angering one of the most immoral presidents in modern history, then it remains a mystery what, exactly, conservative Republican leaders are hoping to conserve—beyond their own power and a home inside the Beltway.


Today’s News

  1. A drone carried out an attack yesterday that killed three U.S. service members and injured more than 40 in Jordan; it approached the U.S. base around the same time a U.S. drone was returning, causing confusion that delayed a response, according to U.S. officials. President Biden vowed retaliation yesterday and blamed Iranian-backed militant groups for the attack.
  2. A United Nations team arrived in Israel today to gather and verify information on reports of sexual violence during the October 7 attack and its aftermath.
  3. A former IRS contractor was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking the tax records of prominent figures including Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk.

Evening Read

An illustration showing a military helmet, broken glasses, and a fake nose and mustache
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

The Dark Art of Comedy in Ukraine

By Tim Mak

Last fall, when I visited the Comedy Room, Kyiv’s first venue devoted exclusively to stand-up, the mood was somber. The first act—Ivan Barbul, who founded the club—tried to warm up the crowd with a little dark humor.

“We all have a common dream: for Vladimir Putin to either die or be judged,” Barbul mused. “I don’t want him dead. I want him in court, so everyone can see him. But I’m really surprised by the location.”

The Hague, in the Netherlands, wasn’t where Barbul thought Putin should get justice. He’d prefer the trial to take place in the southwestern-Ukrainian region of Zakarpattia: “So this asshole can wait in line a bit, like everyone does, and have to spend some time near some old stinky granny who’s in court because of her cow, so he will be all tired, and they will postpone the case,” he began.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Justin Timberlake stands next to Dakota Johnson on the set of SNL
Will Heath / NBC

Watch. Justin Timberlake’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance (available on Peacock) had an “air of desperation” after his rocky pop-career reboot, Esther Zuckerman writes.

Read. The protagonist in Kaveh Akbar’s new novel, Martyr!, wants to believe in something strongly enough that he’s willing to die for it.

Play our daily crossword.

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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