Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

History Did Not Begin With Donald Trump

Republicans were plenty courageous. Before Trump.
October 14, 2019
Featured Image

During the Catholic University Battle of the Great Franco-Persian War of 2019, Sohrab Ahmari observed President Trump’s standing by Bret Kavanaugh throughout the sexual accusations against him to be “a profoundly Trumpian move.” He added, “I don’t think a President Jeb would have taken the heat of a Washington Post op-ed.”

That’s interesting. Perhaps Ahmari has never heard the story of Terri Schiavo.

Schiavo was a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state. In 2003, her feeding tube was removed at the request of her husband, whose motives were questionable. This decision was protested by her parents. With the assistance of Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida legislature passed “Terri’s Law,” which gave Bush the authority to reinsert the feeding tube, which Bush did. Over the next two years (in comparison to Kavanaugh confirmation’s month-long controversy), the case went to state and federal courts. After the case became a federal issue, Bush received assistance from his pro-life brother—the president of the United States—to keep the tube in and keep Schiavo alive. Ultimately, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled for the tube to be removed, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which left Jeb Bush powerless.

Nevertheless, for two years, he had persisted against immense political pressure. In the age of Trump, it’s difficult to remember that far back, but the Schiavo case was, for a time, viewed as the single most important political issue of the day. Indeed, the New York Times ran harsh op-eds against his case, the Washington Post ran an editorial and several op-eds against it, and, in one instance, a New York Times report  compared Jeb Bush and his defense of Schiavo’s life to George Wallace and segregation politics. Both Jeb and George W. Bush stood firm throughout all of this.

For some people, history really does seem to have started five minutes ago.

Jeb Bush is not the only pre-Trump Republican politician to have demonstrated fortitude in the face of progressive assault.

George H.W. Bush stood by Clarence Thomas throughout his confirmation, which Thomas described as “high-tech lynching.” Reagan stood by Robert Bork’s confirmation, even though a Democratic Senate voted it down (which is what would have happened had the Democrats controlled the Senate during the Kavanaugh confirmation process).

And political courage from Republican statesmen did not end at judicial confirmations. Perhaps the most courageous political act in the 21st century (so far) was George W. Bush’s implementation of the Surge—against public opinion and political convenience. John McCain also gave his full-throated support for the Surge while running for president—and expressed his willingness to lose the elections so long as America won that war.

In 1994, the Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, another Republican blessedly born without the scourge of bone spurs, was preparing a run for the White House against Bill Clinton when a military crisis arose in Bosnia. It would have been politically convenient for Dole was to attack Clinton for American intervention. Instead, Dole did the right thing and supported the mission.

Dole would end up winning the nomination against runner-up Patrick Buchanan who had received 20 percent of the vote. Here too, political convenience would have required Dole to fluff Buchanan and flatter his supporters—some of whom, no doubt, were very fine people. Instead, Dole used his acceptance speech to attack Buchanan’s bigotry and proclaim that it had no place in the Republican party.

During the summer of 1984, Ronald Reagan’s poll numbers swooned, and he looked vulnerable against the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale. A friend who worked for Reagan’s chief of staff James Baker tells the story that Baker told Reagan that if he didn’t soften his rhetoric about the Cold War, he would lose in November. Reagan responded that he would lose and be content about it, as long as he was uncompromising about the fight against communism.


All politicians have bad moments. All politicians make mistakes. But the idea that courage among Republicans did not exist pre-Trump—that political courage is, per Ahmari, “a profoundly Trumpian” trait—is nonsense.

The truth is actually quite the opposite: Trump has ushered in an era of cowardice among Republicans in which principle has taken a backseat to expediency nearly every time out of the gate.

Take Ted Cruz. After Donald Trump called his wife ugly and his father a terrorist, Cruz phone-banked for the Trump campaign and invited Trump to rally for his reelection because he was in deep water.

Or Lindsey Graham, who was the greatest Never Trumper on earth—until he realized that his 2020 reelection prospects depended on his relationship with Donald Trump.

Or Mitch McConnell, a former Swamp-dwelling villain of MAGA world who has become their hero for actions like refusing to put forward legislation to protect the integrity of American elections as a show of fealty to Trump.

Or Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and the rest of the Christian conservative world who spent decades preaching the importance of “family values” and the idea that character, in politics, was destiny. Today, they don’t have a single criticism about a man who cheats on his (third) wife with porn stars, takes the Lord’s name in vain, and casually throws about profanities in his public statements.

Or Donald Trump himself, a former progressive Democrat who was pro-choice, for universal healthcare, against gun rights, and donated to Democrats, until he realized that it would be better to abandon all of these positions to run for president.

The truth, of course, is that it is accommodating and adjusting for political power that’s actually a “profoundly Trumpian move.”

And so is projecting one’s flaws onto others. When Republican voters and pundits say “Republicans before Trump were weak and sellouts,” they’re really talking about themselves.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.