There’s been a lot of talk since the Trump Train crashed into the White House about brave Republican lawmakers Speaking Truth To Power. Particularly John McCain, but others too. There’s this palpable feeling of waiting for the courage to begin, and an uncertainty about whether it has.
McCain has been playing this game for years. He was the Senate’s “rebel” against W., and he came away with nothing to show for it—he was passionately against torture, and W. tortured anyway. He called the swift boat attacks against John Kerry “dishonorable and deplorable,” an insult to the core of his being, and then he stumped for Bush. He won plaudits for being personally “civil” in his campaign against Obama, and then stood by Sarah Palin for many months as she helped unleash a psychosis in his party.
That’s been written about many times. What’s depressing to me is something wider — the extraordinarily low standards that Americans, or at least enlightened Americans, have for what constitutes political bravery at a moment when it is more in need than usual. It’s a poverty of civic imagination that shows how empty the concept and meaning of politics is to many people.
Here’s what opposition looks like:
That’s Robin Cook, a longtime Labour party politician who was a key early member of Tony Blair’s government. He was the British Foreign Minister for four years, after which he became the point person for Blair’s government in the House of Commons, a position of immense power and responsibility for his party. He had long privately expressed skepticism of the case for the war in Iraq, but when the UK and US failed to get new approval from the U.N. Security Council, he decided he couldn’t go along with it. Days before the war started, he resigned from his position of power, and gave a remarkably clear and concise ten-minute speech to parliament telling them why. It’s one of the most striking moments in the entire years-long run-up to war, and it’s still worth watching.
The British have a tradition of resignation in government that doesn’t translate here. But what’s remarkable about Cook’s speech is what he gave up to give it — what he sacrificed in the course of opposition. He remained in parliament after he left Blair’s government, and he continued to support his party, but the speech turned out to represent the peak of his public life, and, effectively, the end of his ambitions. He wrote a book. A few years later he had a heart attack and died. Blair skipped his funeral.
Self-sacrifice in the service of conscience is what is most admirable in politics. What is McCain sacrificing? Nothing at all. He bit his tongue in 2016, though he knew full well his party’s leader was a madman, because he needed to get re-elected. Now he’s safe until 2022 — he may not run at all — so he’s engaging in a little bit of sniping. A little bit. For whom is he sniping? The mainline American security establishment, the same people he’s always gone to bat for. A very powerful and well-established interest within the government, which, in the long run, is likely to beat Trump anyway. Who else is he speaking up for?
When the immigration EO came down, observers made lists of Republicans who had been brave enough to critique Trump’s actions. They included many whose complaint, offered after a few days of public outrage, was that the EO was “confusing” or “overly broad” or “could have been implemented better.” The complaint, in other words, was that it was politically damaging. If Trump had 70 percent approval, how many of these brave souls would we see piping up to defend the constitution and the rule of law?
The hope, among many, is that Republicans “turn” on Trump toward the end of this year, if his polling continues to suck. In other words, that members of congress are rats who will flee a sinking ship. Of course, many represent districts — and states — where Trump will remain popular. Wake me when one of these dudes does something they or their friends don’t stand to gain from. While I sleep, here’s New York Magazine’s 5,000 word feature about John McCain.