Donald Trump repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” during his 2016 campaign for President. Instead, he flooded it.
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s resignation on July 6th following numerous allegations of corruption, graft, and misuse of public funds is only at the surface of a swamp deluged in the Trump administration’s moral sewage.
From Wilbur Ross’s insider trading and Ben Carson’s dining set, to the conflicts of interest between Trump and the Trump Organization (whose CFO was recently subpoenaed), and Trump’s refusal to keep with a tradition of transparency by disclosing his personal taxes, the DC swamp has never been dirtier. This is not to mention the disastrous Helsinki Summit where Trump undermined American intelligence agencies in favor of an authoritarian despot, or Trump’s overall “wrecking ball” approach to foreign policy that occasionally threatens nuclear war.
In the midst of this moral and political carnage, the Republican Party has actively and tacitly supported its President. The same party that has forever billed itself as a champion for morality, family values, and cultivating communities of good character, now currently stands with the P.T. Barnum of Presidents; the same man who gained political notoriety for spreading a baseless conspiracy theory about Obama’s birth certificate and who is unapologetic and dishonest when it comes to “locker room banter” or paying off porn stars.
Paul Ryan, often viewed as the intellectual engine of the party, is not seeking another term. Mitch McConnell has acquiesced to almost everything Trump has done. Trey Gowdy and Bob Corker have spoken out against the President and challenged the administration, but like Ryan, they are Republicans planning to bow out of political life at a seemingly opportune time. Republican leaders have been largely silent in response to Trump’s actions and antics, even on issues like tariffs that could have devastating consequences to farmers and small business owners in their districts.
Once upon a time, I was a proud millennial supporter of this Grand Old Party (“GOP”). The Republican platform and traditions spoke to me. After all, it is the political party of my two favorite presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. The GOP at its core stood for admirable American values: protection of states’ rights, economic modernization with reasonable regulation, and the philosophical ideal that liberty depends on sharing in self-government (i.e., civic republicanism, which centered on communal deliberation about the common good, moral bonds in the community, etc.). In addition, the party claimed intellectual titans like Antonin Scalia (Supreme Court Justice), Milton Friedman and Gary Becker (Nobel Laureate Economists), and William Buckley Jr. (founder of the National Review, which originally fused the ideals of traditional conservatives and libertarians). Although I did not agree with every position on the party platform (especially on the social side), I was convinced that a Republican ideology was right for America. What’s not to like about fighting for small business owners, lower taxes, and strong moral communities?
Then Donald J. Trump won the Republican nomination and was elected President of the United States in 2016. It felt like I was watching a reality show suck all reasoned and thoughtful debate out of the national dialogue. Given the endless stream of distracting tweets and stories since, people may have forgotten how vile and violent Trump’s campaign actually was:
- He promoted a culture of violence at campaign events – there were multiple accounts of protesters getting assaulted and numerous instances of Trump encouraging the assaults (and even promising to pay for anyone’s legal fees);
- After receiving support from David Duke (former Ku Klux Klan leader), Trump initially refused to condemn him;
- The campaign consigned journalists to press pens, where Trump would often direct the crowd’s attention, inciting hostility when floating the idea of expanding libel laws to make it easier to sue them;
- Speaking of journalists, he even publicly mocked one with a disability;
- Trump characterized immigrants, particularly Mexicans, as “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists” (not to mention his unrealistic rants about building a wall on the southern border and forcing Mexico to pay for it);
- In the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks and the San Bernadino shooting, Trump called for a Muslim database, expanded surveillance on mosques, and enforcing a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the country;
- Trump appeared on the Alex Jones radio show, and praised the host who spreads conspiracy theories for a living, from Jones’ questioning of the truth behind 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, to the Sandy Hook shooting (Jones is currently suing one family for legal fees in their defamation suit against him);
- And who can forget the Access Hollywood video with Billy Bush, where our current President had only flattering things to say about women (#MeToo, anyone?):
Mr. Trump: Yeah, that’s her. With the gold. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Mr. Bush: Whatever you want.
Mr. Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
Those are merely the highlights that sent Trump to the White House. His “authenticity” and blunt style earned him support primarily from white male blue-collar voters without college degrees. By speaking to them directly and promising jobs with a grand vision of “Making America Great Again”, he convinced this segment of the population to pin their hopes on a billionaire living high above New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
As the chaos of the Trump campaign unfolded, Republicans and other conservatives prioritized party loyalty at the expense of basic morality and rules of civility. They feared condemning Trump’s behavior in case support from his base turned against them. Despite the authoritarianism flavor of his rhetoric, his courting of totalitarian leaders like Putin, and his incessant attacks on journalism and free speech, Republicans did nothing (in fact, some 43% of them recently said they would be in favor of granting Trump the power to shut down media). Apparently, party leaders did not learn the lessons of history about taking extremist authoritarian views seriously.
To this date, Republicans have still failed to challenge the P.T. Barnum of Presidents, whether it’s out of fear for midterm election results or being bullied on a national stage. And arguably, Trump’s performance has grown even more perturbing since assuming office.
Ethics chiefs do not generally resign shortly after the start of a new administration, but that’s exactly what Walter Shaub did in just a few months of dealing with Trump. Yet Trump’s supporters and fellow Republicans barely batted an eye (some argued he was too partisan, despite having worked for both Republican and Democrat administrations).
It would be as if a new CEO takes over a public company, only for the General Counsel to resign after repeated confrontations and grave concerns over the CEO’s compliance with the law. What message would that send to shareholders? What type of reaction would the market have on that company’s stock price?
When the crowd is distracted by P.T. Barnum’s rings of fire though, it is easy to miss what is actually going on at the circus.
Instead of cultivating a world of collaboration and free trade, which has largely been the world order since the end of World War II, America now finds itself growing increasingly isolated. Allies have distanced themselves, while the modern axis of evil has been invited through America’s front doors. The Republican Party, led by its President, supported an Alabama Senate candidate in Roy Moore who was allegedly banned from a local shopping mall because of his predatory behavior toward young girls. Conflicts of interest have run amok between Trump’s business and his administration, with his country clubs and hotels (including one next to the White House) enjoying increased membership fees and event revenue from foreign dignitaries. The Russian election meddling debacle smells worse every day, and the parallels between Mueller’s investigation and Watergate are more and more striking (check out the Podcast “Slow Burn” if you have not already).
The Republican Party let itself succumb to the whims of a bully. Reagan and other conservative icons of the past would have never governed through fear, nor would they have permitted it. But that is Trump’s snake oil speciality. If it is not the “deep state” conspiring against him, it is the “fake news”, or anyone who may have an opinion that slightly differs from his.
Where is the moral leadership that the GOP espoused in the past? As the Trump administration continues to erode the rule of law, govern by tweet, and isolate America further from the world, the country needs a strong dose of morality more than ever. It needs Republicans to put country before party and credibly challenge the candidate they endorsed.
Until that happens in mass, anyone running under the once respected emblem of the elephant has lost my vote.