Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse made news on October 15 when a tape bearing his speech to donors was taped. He was incredibly upset with President Trump’s actions and how that will affect the Republican Party. The response was mixed. Some were glad he said something, but the overwhelming response was that it was too late. He was a strong critic against the President, until he faced a challenging primary. Then he went dark. Now he is starting to be the critic against Trump again now that he won his primary and is headed to an easy win for his second term. He tried to find an offramp from Trumpism but many wonder if his change in direction is way too late.
Sasse’s actions is bringing up a question. I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the GOP lawmakers who were for the most part quiet about the antics of President Trump. Why didn’t they speak up? Their silence paints them as collaborators and a number of NeverTrumpers treat them as such.
Like most Trump critics, I tend to agree that lawmakers should have spoken up even if it cost them. Silence is tantamount to complicity.
And yet, I know the answer as to why so few Senators and Representatives spoke up about Trump at any point over the last four years. We all know the reason. They saw what happened to lawmakers that did speak out. Jeff Flake and Mark Sanford were chased out of Congress. If they spoke out, they knew they would be deserted by the party leadership and they would be voted out of office at the earliest opportunity. They would lose everything they worked for, and in the end there would be no support from either the party leadership which is enthralled to Trump or NeverTrumpers. It seems that it would be all downside with no upside.
If speaking out was so important, what should have been done to tell these leaders that they weren’t alone that there were people that would support them? Why would we expect that they would basically end their career with no benefit? It would be nice if that happened, but knowing human nature, why would we expect they would speak out? If this was so important, then why didn’t my fellow Trump skeptics plan for this, working hard to woo these leaders?
People will respond that a Senator like Sasse should do it because it's the right thing to do. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I say that Sasse knows what is the right thing to do. However, if anyone thinks he was going to just speak up, especially during an election year and put his Senate career on the line, they’re nuts. No one would do that. I’m not saying that’s the right choice, but it is the human choice.
Americans have this heroic view of themselves and their leaders. They can imagine their titular hero speaking up even if it means they lose the election. When they do so, they are regarded by everyone as hero who saved democracy and apple pie.
That’s how it goes in our minds. But that’s not how it goes in real life. Politicians are flawed human beings like you and me. They can be brave and they can be cowardly. The only way to get flawed people to do what you want, which in this case is, to speak up, you have to play politics. While there have been many successes among NeverTrumper in the fight against Trump, this is one of their failures; their inability to get their hands dirty in the game of politics. Because in our day and age the way to get lawmakers to do something is through the dirty business of politics.
I’m an endangered species if not already extinct: a moderate Republican. Over the last twenty years or so from the moderate GOP pols of the 80s and 90s all the way up to the NeverTrumpers of today, I’ve observed how ineffective moderates or dissidents have been in effecting change within the party. Over those two decades, I’ve wondered why is this so. I even wrote an article a decade ago, asking some of the same questions and maybe providing an answer: that the opposition was never organized to do anything other than complain about the state of the party. But what is that? Why can’t they organize?
Last week, I read an article by Damir Marusic entitled, “Why Idealism is the Enemy of Democracy.” In it, Marusic, a native of Croatia, notes that he was never drawn to the hit series “The West Wing.” While everyone around him loved and was inspired by the fictional President Bartlett and his staff, Marusic wasn’t so captivated. Growing up in the Balkans during the 1990s, Marusic saw politics as many things, but it wasn’t idealistic:
“Part of the reason for my reaction is my conviction that politics is a dirty business, not just base in practice, but fundamentally, inextricably incompatible with anything we commonly romanticize as virtue. This belief was born of watching the Balkan wars in the 1990s — both the politics within the countries involved in the war, but also the politics in the so-called enlightened West. Maybe this is an overdetermined frame, but I think it has served me well on balance, helping me sort wheat from chaff.”
We Americans have a habit of seeing politics in ideal ways. Politics is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Jimmy Stewart stands athwart a corrupt Washington. We want our leaders to not simply lead, but to be moral leaders that speak up against evildoers. Lest you think that this is just something that afflicts liberals and NeverTrumpers, idealism is also a part of the Trumpist crowd. Think about it: to his supporters, Trump is someone who takes on the elites, saying whatever he can to tick them off. Their enemies are his enemies. Trump is seen by many of his supporters as a gallant hero going off to slay liberal enemies.
Marusic thinks idealism can be a threat to democratic societies and I believe he’s right. Idealism tends to see things in black and white with little room in between. It sees politics as a moral battle between against evil. We fail to see the darker sides of politics and even how those dark qualities can pursue moral ends. The quest over the last 50 years has been to get rid of the so-called smoke-filled rooms and give more power to the people. Corruption was banished from politics and the end result is we have a political system that doesn’t work. We frowned on backroom deals and compromises, but when you take those away you end up with politics that is all talk with very little being done.
I think real politics is about compromise and the mundane. It is about doing what needs to be done to support a higher purpose, but realizing that to get there you have to get the sausage made as they say.
I go back to why lawmakers didn’t speak out against Trump. People forget our gangster President threatened lawmakers to stay in line. They had an incentive in not saying anything if they wanted to keep their jobs. But we NeverTrumpers had nothing to offer them, no incentive to make them do the right thing. All we could tell them is to basically commit career suicide and then tell them they will be okay and find another job.
Writing in the Atlantic, Canadian politician Michael Ignattief reflects on Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. When people talk about Machiavellian politics, it is not usually positive terms. For the last half millennium, Machiavelli is considered “evil” for describing successful politics as ruthless and at times morally suspect. “We are still drawn to Machiavelli because we sense how impatient he was with the equivalent flummery in his own day, and how determined he was to confront a problem that preoccupies us too: when and how much ruthlessness is necessary in the world of politics,” Ignatieff says. Machiavelli is focused on politicians, but he could have talked about political strategists and activists as well.
Because if NeverTrumpers were really serious about taking the party back from Trump, if they really wanted politicians to speak out against Trump, someone somewhere would have created a political group that would be willing to play hardball. They would have been willing to offer support to pols who get harassed by the Trumpists and they would have worked to make life a living hell for those who didn’t. It would have meant getting dirty and not playing nice. It meant not seeing life as some episode of the West Wing, but as a practice that can be rough and tumble, even in democracies. Finally, drawing from my training as a pastor, they would have seen that human beings are, as John Calvin said, depraved. Politicians are humans that may want to do right, but are tempted to take the easy path and to get them to do the right thing means direct engagement, not sitting from afar tweeting about it.
Back in November of 2019, Professors Steven Teles and Robert Saldin came out with paper for the Nisakanen Center titled “The Future Is Faction.” They argue that moderates within both parties have lost power to the forces at the extremes. In response, they have placed their efforts “good government” tactics on democracy reform (like ranked choice voting)or centrist third parties. Neither make that much of a difference and the extremes continue to grow in power. “In the American political system, there are no shortcuts around the hard work of organization, mobilization, and engagement in the sometimes unseemly business of party politics,” they say. For those that didn’t get it the first time they restate their sentence in more stark terms:
To put it more bluntly, moderates lose to those on the ideological extremes because their adversaries — to their credit — actually do the hard, long-term work that democratic politics rewards.
Further on in the essay, they say moderates have to create a brand within the party that is distinct from the larger party all the while remaining in the party.
There are two examples of this. On the extremes of the Democrats is the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA isn’t a political party, but an organization with the goal of weakening the power of corporations and building up working families. The DSA endorses candidates for various offices at the local, state, and federal levels. The most well known DSA member is Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from New York. The DSA has become a faction in the Democratic Party. They aren’t interested in the “Democratic brand” because they have their own brand. But within the party, they can exert influence, which they have been able to do by pushing the larger party to the left.
What the Teles and the Democratic Socialists are doing is politics. It’s about give and take for a greater good. But will NeverTrumper do this? This has been the problem with Republicans, whether it is moderates or NeverTrumpers; there is no desire to engage in the game of politics to make sure things change. Instead, we sideline ourselves and outsource our politics to the Democrats. We sit and hope that if the Dems win and the GOP loses, then things will change. But political and societal change isn’t something you can outsource. Nor can you just hope that things will get better if the Democrats take full control. To change something means you have to engage.
If Donald Trump loses as he likes to say “bigly” on November 3rd, anti-Trump skeptics have another chance to make a difference? Will we gird our loins and enter the battle or will we walk away, all the while wagging our finger against what the party has become?
The answer turns on seeing political life as the West Wing or as Machiavelli. It’s time to get on the onramp to engage with the party and make change.