Andy Schmookler: The mystery of GOP’s choice to become Trump’s accomplice

Andy Schmookler

For years, I’ve been watching the transformation of the Republican Party – with alarm, but also with a sense that I understand what I’m seeing. But while what the (most visible) Republicans are doing now is as alarming as any political conduct we’ve seen in America in our lifetime, I simply don’t understand it.

What they’re doing is clear enough. It’s why they’re doing it that mystifies me.

What they are doing is concocting one transparently bogus claim after another to discredit those conducting the Trump-Russia investigation – smearing everything from specific individuals to the whole FBI.

Even as each accusation has been exposed to be baseless – non-existent scandals of “unmasking,” and of Uranium One, the “Steele memo,” the “liberal conspiracy in the FBI,” “conflicts of interest,” the “missing texts,” the “secret society,” etc. – the Republicans have simply fabricated some new phony reason to mistrust the work of an outstanding group of American law-enforcement professionals.

As for why the Republicans in Congress are doing this, at a superficial level, i.e. at the level of what they’re trying to accomplish, it is clear: their purpose – pursued in alliance with the White House and Fox News – is to prepare the Republican base to reject whatever the Mueller investigation ends up revealing about this president.

The hope is that no matter how grievous the offenses Trump may have committed, and how thorough the case proving such crimes, the president’s supporters will dismiss it all as a biased hit-job on the president by his political enemies in the supposed “deep state.”

And that hope may be well-founded: we have yet, in this era in which the American right features lying leaders and credulous supporters, to see any clear limits to the willingness of the Republican base to believe whatever their leaders tell them.

But that doesn’t explain the Republicans’ choosing to take this course. Why should the Republicans in Congress tie themselves inextricably to Trump, even as they presumably know well the mountains of evidence against him and his inner circle that are being assembled into a very ugly picture?

Would it not be in their interest, rather, to stand aside and leave Trump to his fate?

The Republicans in Congress are acting as if Trump’s downfall would be politically catastrophic for them. But isn’t it only what they are doing now that makes that true?

Until now, Trump has been only partially their responsibility. For the most part, they did not want him as their nominee: it was the base that forced him upon the party. It’s true that it was the Republican Party that, over the years, whipped up the base into a state where a man like Trump could sweep down and capture their fancy. But that moral culpability is not blatantly visible, and the Republicans could plausibly present themselves as the unwilling victims of his rise.

And it’s true that the Republicans supported him, once he became the party nominee, and have been willing to work with President Trump to accomplish common purposes — such as the recent tax measure.

But it is one thing to accommodate to the inescapable reality that Trump is president, and to find ways to work with him to achieve goals they may share. It is something altogether different to embark on a campaign of lies for the purpose of obstructing justice, making themselves accessories to whatever crimes these Republicans are trying to help Trump survive.

Of course, the Republicans want a Republican president. But if Trump falls, vice President Pence would assume the office. Surely, a President Pence would sign Republican legislation as readily as Trump would. And Pence would be a whole lot less of an embarrassment than Trump is on an almost daily basis.

Are they afraid that Pence will be so deeply implicated in the crimes Mueller exposes that he would go down with Trump? Even if that were to happen, the next in line is the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who would also be a Republican president, and would also enable the Republicans to use their power much more effectively.

Why should Trump be the Republican president these Republicans want, when the alternatives would serve them better?

It’s true that Trump’s popularity with the base remains high enough that the Republicans don’t want to be seen as enemies of the president. And that explains why so few Republicans have played an active role in either getting to the bottom of the Russian-Trump connection in 2016, or even in protecting the nation against continued Russian attacks on American democracy.

But it is one thing for the Republicans to be passive in the face of threats to American democracy and national security, thus not antagonizing Trump’s supporters. But actively becoming part of an effort to undermine the rule of law in the United States would not be required for staying on the good side of the Republican base.

While honoring their oath of office to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” would be politically costly to Republicans in Congress, they do not need to become Trump’s accomplices in order to avoid antagonizing those Trump supporters.

But clearly these Republicans in Congress — in panic mode, going all out to protect Trump against the rule of law — see their interests otherwise. Some of these Republicans are intelligent people, so I keep looking for how their choice makes rational sense – even just in terms of their own political survival, even without any moral consideration of the damage they are doing to America.

If it does make such sense, however, it utterly escapes me.

Which leads me to wonder, without coming to any conclusion, if the answer to the “Why?” question lies outside the realm of reason. It is tempting, in this context, to think of a famous line from Euripides: “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

Andy Schmookler was the 2012 Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District, and is the author of the website “A Better Human Story” at http://abetterhumanstory.org.