Year One: The Mad King

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice/Bridgeman Images

A depiction of knights pledging their allegiance to Charlemagne, Venetian codex, fourteenth century

“Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities,” the former presidential nominee told the audience. “The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.”

He reminded the audience that Trump was “an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter’s questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity.”

He laid out the clear and present danger posed by Trump. “He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.”

Beyond Trump’s unfitness for office was his coarsening effect on the culture. “Now, imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does. Would you welcome that? Haven’t we seen before what happens when people in prominent positions fail the basic responsibility of honorable conduct? We have. And it always injures our families and our country.”

At stake was the future of our democracy, the former nominee said, citing John Adams. “Remember, democracy never lasts long; it soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

That was March 3, 2016, and the speaker was Mitt Romney. As extraordinary as his indictment was, it had little discernible effect on Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination. But the speech underlines a central reality of our politics: the GOP knew what it was embracing; it was all there and Republicans were warned. They may have been deluded, but they were not uninformed.

Like so many of his fellow Republicans, Romney would eventually make his peace with Trump, even entertaining over a dinner of frogs’ legs the possibility of becoming his secretary of state. Nearly a year after Trump’s election, congressional Republicans and the president find themselves locked in a relationship of morbid co-dependency, but it is not one based on misunderstanding. There was no mystery, no hidden knowledge, about who or what Donald Trump was, or what it would mean to invest him with the royal purple of the presidency. Republicans gave it to him knowingly.

More than eighteen months after Romney’s speech, his indictment was echoed in a series of remarks from another former GOP nominee, John McCain, and former President George W. Bush. In turn, their denunciations of Trumpism were amplified by Republican Senator Bob Corker, who questioned Trump’s fitness, and Senator Jeff Flake, who denounced Trump in a speech on the floor of the Senate as he announced that he would not seek re-election.

“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” Flake said. “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country—the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”

But the reality is that the GOP has, in fact, accepted the Trump New Normal. Even though other Republicans shared Flake’s views, few were willing to speak out, and the Republican Party’s surrender seems complete.  

Less than a year into his presidency, we hear the same question again and again: What will it take? What has to happen for Republicans to break with their Mad King?

The honest answer is: Who knows? Whatever people have said has to happen has, in fact, already happened, over and over again, and the GOP has swallowed it anyway. A year ago, Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump’s attacks on a Mexican-American judge a “textbook definition” of racism, but today Ryan is one of Trump’s most reliable and chirpy cheerleaders. Every line has already been crossed, every norm broken, every standard of decency shattered and yet four out of five GOP voters still back him.

Even as Robert Mueller’s investigation accelerates, there are few signs that the party has any will to resist him. In the last year and a half, Trump has succeeded in moving the window of acceptability in our politics, especially on the right. The collaborators rationalize their response thus: if they did not go along, then power would shift to even worse actors. As the former presidential aide Steve Bannon plots a populist revanchist rebellion, some Republicans tell themselves that it is better to be a Vichy Republican, a quiescent enabler, than one of the denizens of Bannon’s Crazytown.  


Even the Trumpists, though, sense that they cannot control the forces they have unleashed. They nurtured an alligator in the bathtub; now it is grown and loose and still quite angry. Republicans are now competing with one another for who is to be eaten last.

Republicans knew that this could happen, of course, but they decided to make their Faustian bargain anyway. Surrender to Trump meant accepting the unacceptable, but they reasoned it would be worth it if they got conservative judges, tax cuts, and the repeal of Obamacare. The question they must grapple with is: What is the butcher’s bill for this bargain? So far, they’ve been willing to pay it in a series of escalating self-humiliations.

Meanwhile, the pressures on Republicans to conform are intensifying. If you can bear it, turn on Fox News for a few minutes today to get a small sense of how far the right is willing to go to rationalize, defend, and deflect Trump’s behavior. Rather than holding Trump accountable, the conservative media seems more intent on purging conservatives who have not yet submitted.

Last year, as he gave the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, the newspaper columnist Bret Stephens (then with The Wall Street Journal) sought to explain the capitulation of the conservative movement by citing the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose book, The Captive Mind, described the process of how Milosz’s colleagues willingly submitted to Stalinism.

“They wanted to believe,” Stephens said. “They were willing to adapt. They thought they could do more good from the inside. They convinced themselves that their former principles didn’t fit with the march of history, or that to hold fast to one’s beliefs was a sign of priggishness and pig-headedness. They felt that to reject the new order of things was to relegate themselves to irrelevance and oblivion. They mocked their former friends who refused to join the new order as morally vain reactionaries.”

Today, a year into the Trump era, that description feels hauntingly familiar. Whatever their protestations to the contrary, Republicans find themselves in what has become Trump’s party, and they risk being permanently tainted by both his character and his anti-immigrant, America First policies. More than a year and half ago, Romney said the party faced a “time for choosing.” Apparently, the GOP has chosen. As a result, both moderates and principled conservatives find themselves cast out from a party many of them no longer recognize. Maybe it’s time to move on.

This essay is part of a series reflecting on the first year since Donald Trump’s election as president. 

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