When Donald Trump won his surprise presidential victory in 2016, Congressional Republicans were faced with an unenviable quandary: How do we go about working alongside a leader who is hugely popular within the party, but whose unhinged antics we regularly (and secretly) abhor? Working to find common ground on some things while disagreeing on others didn’t seem like a feasible option: Trump seemed to take a perverse pleasure in searching out Republicans who opposed him on pretty much anything and then working to destroy their careers. The best posture, many quickly decided, was a sort of defensive crouch: crossing Trump only when they felt they had no other choice, all the while doing their best to ignore as many of his habitual flare-ups as possible.
For a while, some made a pretty good fight of it. In the early days of the Trump administration, you could count on a handful of prickly GOP lawmakers to push back on Trump’s wilder behavior. Say the president, in a fit of morning-TV pique, decided to take a shot at MSNBC host Mika Brzezinksi as “bleeding badly from a facelift”—there’d be Sens. Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham sighing that it was “beneath the office” of the presidency. Some conservative congressmen even risked crossing the White House on signature policy issues, as when the House Freedom Caucus refused to go along with an Obamacare repeal bill they disliked during Trump’s first summer in office, keelhauling the White House’s first major legislative push.
Over time, however, a terrible truth began to dawn on the congressional GOP: Most of their voters liked Trump more than they liked their congressman, and Trump wasn’t afraid to exploit that fact. When he went after a member of his caucus—Sen. Jeff Flake, perhaps, or Rep. Mark Sanford—that member tended to suffer catastrophic career damage. And so things began to change, slowly, gradually: lawmakers started to pretend Trump’s Twitter didn’t exist at all; started finding reasons not to vote against his legislative priorities; decided, time and again, in case after case, that there was a better choice than to risk provoking the president after all.
That was the state we found House Republicans in Tuesday, when they voted almost unanimously in opposition to a resolution condemning xenophobic remarks President Trump made over the weekend about a quartet of progressive women in Congress—the group of celebrity freshman lawmakers, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, that everyone has, apparently overnight, decided to start calling “The Squad.” On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the women of color, “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” before trying to fix the problems they see in America. (One of the four Congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar, immigrated from Somalia as a child, while the other three were all born and raised in the U.S.; all, of course, are American citizens.)
Even for a Trump attack, this was pretty on the nose—“go back where you came from” being, historically, one of our nation’s most tried-and-true racist gibes. Nonetheless, plenty in pro-Trump media leaped into action to insist that there was nothing racist about Trump saying that the opinions of some lawmakers should be discounted because they came, or looked like they came, from inferior countries. Which demonstrated that the slow creep of acquiescence to Trump’s worst impulses hasn’t been limited to Congress.
In fact, Sunday’s outburst was probably the most baldly racist thing Trump has said since the summer of 2016, when the candidate, who had recently locked down his party’s nomination, claimed that a judge presiding over a case involving Trump University couldn’t possibly treat him fairly, since he was a “Mexican.” (The judge in question, Alonzo Curiel, was also an American citizen.)
At that time, Republicans were just beginning to get used to resigning themselves to Trump. Many couldn’t withhold their disgust—House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had endorsed him for president only a week before, called Trump’s remarks “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” But even then, the seed had been planted: Sure, maybe Trump was a racist, but he was our racist. Ryan declined to withdraw his endorsement. Perhaps at that point it was already inevitable that we would arrive where we are today.
Still, it’s hard not to wax nostalgic for even that level of backbone from Republican leadership. Both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were unequivocal this week: No racism to see here! McCarthy insisted that “this is about socialism versus freedom.” McConnell offered a vague, chiding suggestion—“It’s about time we lowered the temperature all across the board”—but insisted that, in any event, the president was “not a racist.” When it came time to vote, exactly four Republicans—and one recent departure from the party—said otherwise.
The fact that the resolution being voted on Tuesday was nonbinding only multiplies congressional Republicans’ shame. There was no conflict of interests for lawmakers to consider here; no conservative “higher good” was at stake. They did not have to give up a SCOTUS seat or a tax cut. It was a freebie.
Lawmakers were merely required to go on the record in response to the question: Donald Trump just said a baldly racist thing—will you raise your voice in protest? Practically none would. It’s hard to see them falling much farther than that. For all intents and purposes, the capitulation of the GOP to this president is now complete.
You may find this foolish or disgusting or morally reprehensible. But it is much worse than that: It’s dangerous.
Republicans have always told themselves that despite Trump’s authoritarian impulses, he would never be able to act on them. The guardrails of democracy were too strong; the main body of the party would only let him stray so far.
Ask yourself this: If congressional Republicans could not support a non-binding resolution condemning these remarks as racist, then what line could Trump cross that they would push back on, especially if pushing back was going to cost them something?
What if, just as a for-instance, Trump is defeated by a narrow margin in 2020 and decides to contest the election? What if he claims his defeat was the result of “illegal votes” and a “rigged system”—both charges he made about the 2016 election? Are we now supposed to believe that, in such an event, that congressional Republicans would condemn his behavior as dangerous? That they would insist that Trump stop and proceed with the transfer power?
Maybe, in such a hypothetical situation, they would. Then again, three years ago you would have thought that at least some large portion of the party would have stood against Trump’s racist attack on their fellow legislators by, at least, voting for a meaningless resolution.