One of the great things about having principles is that they protect you against becoming a spineless weathervane and publicly humiliating yourself. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been experiencing just how true that is in recent days.
This past week, McCarthy debased himself in spectacular fashion by claiming that reports of his ire with former president Donald Trump over the latter’s incitement of the January 6 insurrection were “totally false and wrong.” Later that night, the New York Times reporters who originally broke the story released audio of McCarthy’s comments. McCarthy didn’t mince words either, saying that he “had it” with Trump because of the insurrection, that “nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it,” and that he was going to ask him to resign. Yet just over two weeks later, McCarthy slunk down to Mar-a-Lago to prostrate himself.
McCarthy’s abject humiliation is particularly epic, coupled, as it was, with being caught blatantly lying about it. But he isn’t the only one to embarrass himself trying to please Trump.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said that “Trump is practically and morally responsible” for Jan. 6, also said he would still vote for Trump if he’s the party’s nominee. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who said the GOP “shouldn’t have listened” to Trump in the wake of Jan. 6, is all-in on Trump 2024. Former Trump attorney general William Barr said that Trump’s refusal to accept his 2020 election loss showed a “detachment from reality,” but insisted “it’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee” when asked if he would vote for Trump.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who once said “count me out” of the Trump show in a way very similar to McCarthy, isn’t even playing coy about having to vote for Trump if Trump is the nominee. He’s actually said, “I hope President Trump runs again.” Chris Christie has been teasing the idea that he might challenge Trump in a primary, yet when asked if he would support Trump should he win the primary, he practically jumped out of his seat to proclaim that “the line of supporting Donald Trump starts behind me.”
And yet, some Republicans who once supported Trump now recognize the threat he poses to American democracy. That list includes former administration officials such as Stephanie Grisham and John Bolton and even Republican members of Congress, such as Tom Rice of South Carolina. The two most prominent Republicans, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, both sit on the Jan. 6 Committee and are fearless in their condemnations of Trump and other members of their party trying to whitewash the attack.
Cheney and Kinzinger understand something that Barr, McConnell and their teammates do not: When democracy is at stake, politics is no longer a game.
Republicans can no longer tell themselves comforting stories about how Trump isn’t as bad as he seems or that he will “become more presidential.” What you see is what you get — a man who will happily ignore the Constitution and overthrow our democracy if he thinks it will get him what he wants. Barr justifies his support for Trump as being “the lesser of two evils.” The greater evil, in Barr’s mind, is “the progressive agenda.” But if the American people disagree with progressive policies, they can vote against them at the next election. Policies can be changed. The end of American democracy, however, is forever.
Cheney and Kinzinger have shown how simple the choice is. It’s not a choice between embracing Trump and becoming a liberal. Cheney and Kinzinger are both as conservative as it gets. But Trump crossed a bright line in our politics, and they had the courage to say so. More people need to follow their example. Even if you weren’t “Never Trump,” the efforts to overturn the election and the events of January 6 should make anyone who believes in American democracy “Never Again Trump.”
This is the ultimate choice facing every Republican who is trying to have it both ways. You can think Trump’s actions after losing the 2020 election are an unprecedented assault on our institutions, or you can decide he’s worth supporting again if he runs in 2024. But you cannot do both. This is, to borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan, a time for choosing.
I’m afraid it’s too late for Kevin McCarthy. But other Republicans, yes, even the likes of Barr, McConnell, Christie and Haley, still have a choice to make.