South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham famously mused on May 3, 2016, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed.......and we will deserve it.”
Surprisingly, this tweet is still live on Graham’s Twitter feed, the only remnant of an earlier version of the man who once appealed to late Senator and war hero John McCain.
Some of us are grateful that the existential threat to our centuries-old democracy came from the buffoon Donald Trump, rather than a more capable authoritarian villain. Trump’s the one in the spy movies who handcuffs the hero ineptly, and then faces the camera to regale us all with his evil plan. Then he’s foiled by the hero’s swift wrist shake to the handcuffs and a karate chop, and the world is saved.
It isn’t hard to understand Donald Trump’s behavior. Simply put, he has certain appetites, on behalf of only himself, and they need to be met right now. When Trump’s needs have coincided with those of Senate Republicans, they have been happy to support whatever he asks, and they have been rewarded with small and large gifts. Small gifts might include glowing tweets and campaign visits sparkling with television coverage, like a diamond bracelet on the wrist of a mistress.
There were large gifts, too, such as controversial executive policy orders on immigration and the removal of environmental protections for short-term personal or corporate gains. These initiatives play well with the rightmost edges of the voter base and the donor class. They also starve our future and enable politicians — who hope to have lifetime careers — to keep their legislative fingerprints off of the less-desirable outcomes in the long run. “I never would have supported a Muslim ban! I’m shocked that you would accuse me of that!” says everyone still in office in 2028.
Controlling both the Senate and the White House offered the GOP a large helping of tax cuts and more wealth inequality. Control of the Senate bestowed court-packing with regressive judges to fulfill promises made over decades to the party fringe. Put a pin in that, Democrats. A President needs the Senate to effect the kind of change that outlasts one’s term.
But when you make a deal with the devil, sometimes the devil expects you to pay up with your soul.
The year 2020 presented a slippery slope for the majority-Republican Senate, because this was the moment that the needs of Donald Trump went to war with the oath to the Constitution they all swore when they took office.
The slide accelerated in January, with impeachment. To summarize, Donald Trump wanted the president of Ukraine, as a condition of the aid we taxpayers would fund, to announce an investigation into possible Joe Biden corruption. It wouldn’t be necessary to do the investigation (indeed, that would be self-defeating, as there was no corruption to find.) The announcement itself would achieve the goal. Foreign election interference had helped Trump in 2016, and there were few consequences to any of the actors. Why change strategies?
The divide between Trump’s personal need (to be re-elected) and our democracy (fair elections without bribed foreign interference) was apparent in a phone call witnessed by many people who testified under oath. This is a textbook-level impeachable offense. Poor Lindsey Graham agreed. “We put conditions on aid all the time," he told reporters. "But if you said I’m not going to give you money unless you investigate my political opponent to help me politically, that would be completely out of bounds.” Oops.
When the House sent the articles of impeachment along their path to removing Donald Trump from office, every Senate Republican (except Mitt Romney-UT and Susan Collins-ME) voted not to call witnesses. To his credit, Lamar Alexander (TN) said, "If you've got eight witnesses saying that you left the scene of an accident, you don't need nine."
In the end, though, Alexander paid no attention to the testimony of the twelve witnesses he had in hand. Lindsey Graham certainly didn’t want to be held to his clear statement about wrongdoing. Only Mitt Romney voted for impeachment, and only for one count. One count would have been enough. Susan Collins, who would have preferred to have witnesses, voted against the impeachment itself, believing that Donald Trump had learned his lesson. Indeed he had.
Enter the coronavirus. Avoiding the likely mocking by Trump and his followers, Senate Republicans appeared frequently at indoor events without masks. They hosted and attended high-profile outdoor events without requiring or even encouraging mask-wearing or distancing. For example, the vaguely-gloating celebration to announce the Amy Coney Barrett nomination was one of several Republican-endorsed superspreader events. Yet Senate Republicans occasionally recognized aloud that mask-wearing made America safer, with the hope that Trump might set a decent example. He didn’t.
The GOP Senators followed Trump down the path of ignoring the coronavirus (because of its possible effect on Trump’s dreams of a second term, and maybe more terms than that). But the stakes became higher when it became obvious that Trump’s re-election wasn’t a sure thing.
GOP Senators had been tested once, having been asked to pick sides during the February 5 impeachment vote: free and fair elections with a chance to win or lose, or guaranteed winning through whatever was necessary.
Trash absentee ballots? Fine. Disparage American city voters with barely-disguised racism? No problem. Interfere with state ballot counting timelines to create chaos? Sounds like a plan. In the 2020 general election, they chose whatever Trump’s playbook would be. Few spoke up.
For the record, the plan worked for nearly everyone but Trump. Vulnerable Senate seats in Maine and South Carolina were saved. The Senate majority was still Republican, but threatened by two inconclusive results in Georgia.
On Election Day 2020, GOP leaders were silent and sometimes fretful in the face of Trump’s election threats. Since Election Day, they’ve been worse. Many won’t refer to Joe Biden as President-elect, though they will use the word “transition” and admit that the election is over.
Some have created a cocoon around themselves. Some won’t talk to reporters. Some have been admirable. Lisa Murkowski (AK) has asked Trump to concede. Others (thank you again, Mitt Romney) have recognized the danger to our democracy.
Rand Paul (KY) floated the possibility of wrongdoing, using ominous and empty terms like “Interesting…” and “Fraud?” based on the (very common) compilation of paper ballots during the night. His evidence? A blogger’s review and a suspicion that “Big Tech” is a malicious actor. Fox Business, not a lefty site, disputed these claims in a scare-quote-peppered article..
Senator Rob Portman (OH) tried to discourage President-elect Joe Biden from nominating Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Referring to critical tweets about Republicans on Tanden’s Twitter account, Portman said, “Of all the jobs, that’s one where I think you would need to be careful not to have someone who’s overtly partisan.”
Surely he would have objected when George W. Bush nominated a partisan sitting congressman to head that office, especially a nominee without budget experience. No, that nomination sailed through and Rob Portman himself became OMB Director in 2006. The Senate once understood that Presidents should be able to pick their own teams if the candidates are qualified.
Similarly, of former Fed Chairman Janet Yellen’s nomination to lead the Treasury Department, Senator Chuck Grassley (IA) said, “I believe that she would get a favorable view.” But he noted that he’d need to review her tax returns before making a decision. He must have waived that requirement when he made his decisions about supporting Donald Trump. He did have concerns about Trump’s recently-released tax documents, but only about how they got reported and apparently not what they revealed.
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, after most contested states had already certified their results, danced around Trump’s ability to “present his case”, knowing that Trump’s legal team has never suggested (because of the threat of perjury) that there is any fraud to find. He ends with, “And I think we are going to have to look at the effect of mail-in balloting." Asked if the election is rigged, he replied, “I mean, we’ll see.”
We saw. It isn’t. Even after Trump’s landslide of a loss, the magnet that is Trump is still pulling away at the remnants of the GOP’s conscience.
The other senator from Missouri, Roy Blunt, when asked if he considers Joe Biden to be the President-elect, “We are certainly moving forward as if that’s what’s going to happen on Jan. 20.” He added that the “president-elect will be president-elect when” the electors vote. Compare that to the day after Election Day four years ago, when he congratulated “President-elect Trump”. New winner, new rules.
On the topic of new winners, the two Republican senators trying to keep their Georgia seats issued a joint statement calling for the resignation of their own state’s Republican Secretary of State. “The Secretary of State has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections,” they said in a joint statement. “He has failed the people of Georgia, and he should step down immediately.” They offered no evidence of fraud.
Perhaps they were simply trying to demonstrate by example how to fail the people of Georgia, in which case they were doing a bang-up job. There’s a real multi-dimensional quality to disenfranchising your own voters while you are interviewing with them for a return gig.
At the moment, Senator Lindsey Graham isn’t willing to discuss the President-elect, or transitions, or democratically-elected leaders, only unspecified “suspicious” systems and possible “shenanigans”. But four years and a 180 degree swerve after his warnings to the GOP, he told the truth about the party one more time. "If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there’ll never be another Republican president elected again," he said. Another way to go might be to broaden the party’s appeal beyond bigots and cultists, but maybe that’s just too hard now. It’s spineless, and shameless.
That’s the final lesson that Republicans have absorbed from the Trump era. According to Trump, the world needs what is good for me, and anything else doesn’t matter. When democracy doesn’t deliver a win for me, we must change from our democracy to something else that does.
There’s a motto for investors who want to understand their own risk tolerance: Would you like to eat well or sleep well? This expression means that risky investments often provide better returns, but they come with enough worry to disrupt your nights. Trump was always a risky investment. Senators, how’s your sleep right now?
The Senate was once an august deliberative body, where hot issues were sent from the raucous House of Representatives to cool off. The GOP was once the Grand Old Party. Now they have to avert their eyes, away from the Proud Boys who are neither proud nor boys, away from supporting the impassioned Trump supporter who crossed state lines to murder peaceful protestors, away from assassination threats to lawmakers and civil servants who obstruct Donald Trump, and away from parades festooned with Trump flags embracing Confederate flags. Could they have expected that they’d have to do this when they signed on to ride along with Trump in 2016? Probably.
Having a robust opposing party in the Senate is valuable, even to Democrats. But that party needs to have at least one of two characteristics. Either it needs to operate in good faith, or it needs to be in the minority. Right now we have neither, and governance is suffering for it. The good faith problem can't be fixed in the short term, because Senators have six-year terms and Trump still has coattails. But the majority-party problem can be fixed in about a month, by electing Democrats to both Senate seats in Georgia.
The Republican party has figured out how to get people to vote in down-ballot elections. It's time for Democrats to step up and ballot down. And funny thing, a down-ballot election is coming up on January 5.
The GOP, the party of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, has instead become the party of misguided businessman Herbert Hoover and bigot Barry Goldwater. It’s been reconfigured into the bloated, racist, authoritarian image of Donald Trump. Not grand. Not old. And with any luck, the party’s over. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Get a mail-in ballot.
Vote early now or drop off the ballot and stay safe.
Vote for Democrats Reverend Raphael Warnock AND Jon Ossoff .