THE PERIL OF POLITICAL COWARDICE

Four hundred and eighty one days ago, Donald Trump stood behind his wife as he glided down an escalator in Trump Tower, took his place behind a podium and announced he would be running for President of the United States. He called Mexicans rapists, said we should have “taken the oil” out of the Middle East, and claimed all our jobs were fleeing to Asia — that was day one. He entered the political fray like a tangerine bull in the proverbial china shop and proceeded to have 481 consecutive days of unmitigated attention before the heavy hitters of his own party stood up and said he was unfit to hold one of the most powerful positions in the world. It took 481 days for those elected to guide and serve the people of the United States to stand up and say what was evident from the announcement of his candidacy — and now, it’s too little too late.

After the events of Friday afternoon, in which we discovered that Donald Trump is in fact a raging misogynist with uncontrollable urges to commit sexual assault, there has been report after report about Republican leadership jumping ship — stating they could no longer support their party’s nominee for president, that his words were unconscionable, that because they have wives and daughters they needed to be able to look them in the eye without feeling shame for the vote they had pledged to cast. All of them seemingly patting themselves on the back for finally doing the right thing and withdrawing their support after he had crossed some invisible line — as if everything he had said and done in the 480 days previous still fell within the bounds of acceptability. Party loyalty could only go so far, and this time denouncing him was convenient.

But herein lies the root of the problem — because while there is a fair share of blame to go around for Trump’s rise, party loyalty gave a platform for our leaders to execute an incredible show of political cowardice. Those in positions of power, whose voices would have been listened to, all stood idly by in the shadow of a wannabe tyrant for fear that straying away from the imaginary consensus of their party would leave their own political careers in ruin. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Jason Chaffetz, John Kasich, Carley Fiorina — all took 481 days of Trump spewing hateful rhetoric before declaring they could no longer support him as their nominee for President. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee — arguably the two most powerful Republicans in the country — have yet to pull their support, going only so far as to condemn the way Trump spoke about women on the tape leaked Friday and cancelling appearances with the candidate over the weekend. All of this, for the sake of party loyalty. Because to them, it has always seemed better to let Trump run roughshod than allow another Democrat to take the highest office in the land, regardless of how vulgar and unprepared he was.

This level of party loyalty is exactly what George Washington warned against 220 years ago when he declined to seek a third term as President. His words seem eerily prophetic as we take stock of this year’s election:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Our leaders, on both sides, have become so rooted in the partisan divide that straying from their respective packs has become a death sentence for a political career — fellow party members will shun you, funds will suddenly dry up, invitations to status-building parties will be nonexistent. This creates a culture of black and white when what we desperately need are ideas built of compromise and compassion. If the new norm is a constant alienation of even the slightest departure from the base of a party’s stance, our democracy will fail to flourish, to the detriment of the people the government serves. It also means that those who were elected to be our leaders will not stand up and say when something or someone is wrong without first contemplating the level of impairment to their own political capital. Part of being an elected official is to heed the will of the people, but it also requires the courage to guide us toward better policy and principles — some of which may call for a departure from party consensus.

The bright spot in all of this is that we live in a democracy and every citizen has a vote. We get to decide if those who declined to denounce an incoherent rage piñata bursting with hate and bigotry for 481 days get to retain the right to represent us. November 8th isn’t just about who will move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but whether or not those who played political roulette with the most powerful office in the world in an effort to get re-elected themselves are allowed to return to their own seats of power. After all, if Trump is going to slam his rival for “standing by her man” after his “inexcusable behavior,” then we can surely hold the Republicans to the same level of criticism for standing by theirs.