BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | MAY 17, 2021
“As a republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge which it faced back in Lincoln’s day. The Republican party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation—in addition to being a party which unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs.”
Those were the words of Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith June 1, 1950, in the wake of what became the maniacal campaign of fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy to purge Communist sympathizers from the Federal Government and the movie industry.
McCarthy encouraged bad behavior and perpetrated severe threats to our freedoms. He was the grandfather of cancel culture.
In her famous “Declaration of Conscience’ speech Smith dared challenge the intimidating McCarthy, warning against a Republican regime “embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty (that) would prove …disastrous to the nation.” Smith said “I do not want to see the Republican Party win that way. While it might be a fleeting victory…it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people…”
Democrats produced their own version of a popular despot. Just a short two decades earlier they had to face down Huey Long, a corrupt, mean-spirited, and flamboyant Governor of Louisiana and US Senator. When once challenged on acting contrary to the Louisiana constitution, Long declared “I’m the Constitution around here now.” He caused a near riot in the State Capitol, and later was the target of an armed insurrectionist movement in response to his attempt to stay in office illegally. Lt. Gov. Paul Cyre, who earlier supported Long’s impeachment, took control of the state when Long was out of town. Long was assassinated in 1935.
The similarities between then and now are striking. It is a shame we do not learn from the events in our history that give us perspective and map for us the road ahead.
Rep. Cheney last week knowingly sacrificed her 3rd ranking House Republican leadership position as Chairwoman of the Conference to pursue another declaration of conscience against another intimidating pseudo-populist political figure who for now continues to have a mesmerizing influence over the GOP.
Cheney has steadfastly pressed her conviction that President Donald Trump “provoked a violent attack on this Capitol,” in a vain attempt to overturn an election he insists was stolen from him. There is a risk of him “inciting further violence,” she believes.
“The election is over,” Cheney said on the House floor the night before she was deposed. “That is the rule of law. That is our constitutional process. Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution. Our duty is clear. Every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy. This not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans.”
Throughout the Trump era the country has been waterboarded by the media and the Democratic opposition with anti-Trump news, narratives, streams of political propaganda, two impeachments, a half dozen dead-end investigations all having a demoralizing effect on the country and culminating in little more than a waste of time and national resources.
Trump has encouraged it all. He has been like a geyser spewing a scalding cascade of bizarre, rude, crude antics and rhetoric the country has never witnessed from a sitting President.
It was hard to believe it could get worse; but it did, on January 6th. There are few incidents since 9/11 that have been as disturbing and a greater threat to the stability of our democratic Republic as the violent assault on the US Capitol. Some of the insurrectionists intended to kidnap or kill Members of Congress, including the Vice President, and others were equally intent upon disrupting the constitutional mandate of the Congress to ratify the results of the 2020 elections.
President Trump clearly seemed to condone, if not contribute to the assault. He then initially refused to use his influence and the powers of his office to stop the insurrection and avoid further bloodshed and destruction, something he was begged to do by his good friend House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The Leader has since put a sock in his criticism of the former President and led the purge of Rep. Cheney for not doing so herself.
Lt. Gov. Cyre was right nearly 100 years ago. Margaret Chase Smith was right seventy years ago, and Rep. Cheney has it right today. Autocrats have little compunction to override the Constitution when it suits their purpose. But it is wrong.
Trump’s behavior in January was a bridge too far for many of us, a step over a red line, a violation of his oath of office, and a deviation from the standards of political behavior, human values, and the rule of law that have defined us, our nation, and the American character.
The chairman of the Republican conference must be able to articulate the messages and narratives that define and represent Republican members of the House of Representatives. That is the primary role of the Conference chair. If that individual engages in a campaign that overshadows that role and contradicts the will of the majority, then there is reason to make a change. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the underlying intent of Leaders McCarthy and Scalise and it obscures a much larger dilemma for the GOP.
The real intent, it seems was to genuflect at the altar of Trump, who they view and unfortunately rightly so, as a potentially decisive influence in regaining control of the Congress in 2022. They are unwilling to gamble otherwise. They adhere to an article of faith that what is good for the GOP is always good for the country, regardless of the cost.
Therein lies the essence of what Senator Smith and Representative Cheney were talking about. Are elections in this country to be won at all costs? How much of our values and our character do we compromise or sacrifice entirely to win? How much do you pay to retain votes of citizens some of whom repudiate the very principles on which the Party was founded?
Peggy Noonan answered some of those questions very simply in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. The Trump loyalists “can’t win elections without classic GOP voters. They can win with Trumpism, but they’ll lose with Trump. As they just did.”
The distinction between Trumpism and Trump is important. Republicans have to respect and reflect the legitimate concerns of those millions of citizens Hilary Clinton insulted as deplorable and Joe Biden seemed to insult further as Neanderthals. They are struggling Americans who before Trump felt ignored. They are very distinct from the relatively small number of racist rabble-rousers who espouse white supremacy and extremist nationalist views that have no place in our political discourse or social life.
Republican leaders, however, make no such distinction. They see Trump and Trumpism as inseparable. They seem to believe Trump’s messages and presence can be delinked from their candidates, who will move on from him. The problem with that, of course, is you can’t move on from Trump. He won’t let you and neither will the Democrats or the traditional media, who have two powerful incentives to keep him around, one financial—he’s a money-maker—and the other partisan and ideological. Trump is the media’s weapon for labeling all Republicans in as despicable a light as they can shine. Donald Trump is unrelenting and obsessively self-serving. He is a Rasputin-like mesmerizing cultist. He will not go away. You either prevail over him or surrender to him.
Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and presumed founder of Taoism, is quoted as saying, “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” I cannot predict how the GOP will evolve in the months leading up to the 2022 mid-term elections. Predictions of the demise of the GOP have missed their mark as widely as predictions of the GOP’s great ascendance into the permanent majority. I prefer to follow the adage that it is better to keep your mouth shut and let people wonder if you are ignorant than babble on and prove that you are.
However, the survey research that Donald Trump is in far more disfavor than favor is compelling as is the increase in the popularity of a third party. It is true that once out of power, politicians more predictably lose their luster.
None of that is very telling though if Republican leaders don’t have the strength, creativity, independence, and intelligence to heal the deep wounds in our body politic and unite all Republicans in the cause of traditional civil, common sense, compassionate, and constructive conservatism. I hope they do.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.