We should take Sen. Mitt Romney’s terse, heartfelt speech Wednesday for what it was: a eulogy for a party that has ceased to exist in any form recognizable to its historic leaders, whether Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan.
Today’s Republican Party is best understood as a cult whose leadership in Congress is made up in equal parts of cynical cowards, remorseless opportunists and hardcore fanatics (although it’s difficult to tell the difference if you have paid attention to Lindsey Graham’s excruciatingly slow-mo abasement). Like all cults, it has a love-object of worship, in this case the human altar of Donald John Trump. And in his service they will attack and demean virtually anyone, even their last presidential nominee.
Down at the base, it’s the same mix. There are the believers — look at the joy, the gleeful exuberance they feel in his presence. He’s sticking it to all the “elites,” the killjoys, the bosses, even if he is the worst possible version of a boss himself. But around that base are a larger number of so-called Republicans who are cold and hard mini-Mitch McConnells. They’ll take a “win” any way they can get it, and Trump has delivered and continues to deliver victories.
I well remember Election Day 2016, walking into the local business establishment of a man I knew to be a Republican. An older woman was there, looking extremely dubious, and what this man said to her has stuck in my mind ever since: “Sometimes you just gotta hold your nose and do it.”
That’s our local Mitch McConnell, and for my money those kinds of Republicans are much more dangerous than the devout Trumpists. They’ll tear up the Constitution, ignore the law and suppress a vote before sitting down to breakfast with their families.
Mitt Romney’s faith-based avowal of honesty, stating the baldest fact — that what Trump had done to Ukraine was “an appalling abuse of public trust” — will mean nothing to any of these so-called Republicans. I had a few hours of wistful euphoria, you know, telling myself, “This will shame them! They’ll have to take him seriously!”
Then my tougher-minded partner reminded me of how many times since 2015 some conservative leader had publicly renounced Trump, to no effect at all. Of course, she was right. The dear leader dragged Sen. John McCain’s name through the mud and no one said “boo.”
It will be the same with Romney, and the only interesting fact is that he’s probably invulnerable in Mormonism’s Utah citadel, where 22% of the 2016 voters picked an obscure Republican congressional aide, Evan McMullin, because they couldn’t hold their noses for Trump.
Historically, the Republican Party was a big tent with loose, flapping sides, able to accommodate small-government conservatives, party hacks and ardent “progressives.”
Pennsylvania is a great example. Back at the party’s founding, we contributed both the corrupt party boss, U.S. Sen. Simon Cameron, and the most Radical Republican of all, Thaddeus Stevens.
In more recent memory, think of all those middle-of-the-road moderates, decent men like Richard Schweicker, John Heinz, William Scranton and Dick Thornburgh. Can you imagine any of them kissing Donald Trump’s ring? Their party is gone, extinct like the dinosaurs.
This is a fundamental problem for all of us, including those of who have never voted Republican. In a viable electoral democracy, you need functioning parties that play by the rules of normal competition, with a range of leaders and perspectives.
One of our historic parties has now been hijacked by ideologues, monied interests (think of the Koch brothers, or the Club for Growth, which promoted Pat Toomey into Congress), all of them pledged to the Church of Trump. It can no longer function responsibly; in fact, it can do little other than march in lockstep behind this strange, maniacal figure.
A contractor I know walked into my house a week ago, when it became clear that there wouldn’t be four Republican votes to call witnesses (think about that, a trial where the jury refuses to hear witnesses, at the direction of the defense lawyer) and said, “Well, I guess this is the end of the republic.”
I don’t know if he’s right — I hope not — but I do know that it’s the end of the Republican Party. Whether anyone can recreate or revive it in a Time After Trump remains to be seen.
One more thing: Many decent, honest people who have always been Republicans will read this and feel personally insulted. All I can say to these honorable men and women is that silence equals complicity. Mitt Romney has shown you what moral courage looks like.
No one is asking you to stop being Republicans, to vote for Joe Biden or, god forbid, Bernie Sanders. But you can tell Rep. Lloyd Smucker and Sen. Toomey (by email or snail mail or a call to their offices) that this is not acceptable, that as a proud Republican you agree with Romney that the Grand Old Party should not stand for criminal behavior. You can talk to your family and neighbors and fellow party members and encourage them to do the same. Think about what your fellow Americans will say about this moment in 50 or 100 years.
History does matter, and we will all be counted in the final reckoning. Please, take back your party, and help save the republic.
Van Gosse is a professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.