When my parents were good Republicans — my mother a party activist, in fact — the label meant something entirely different than it does today.
It was the party of Lincoln, imagine that, and the GOP tolerated differences with a tent that was indeed big. You could be pro-civil rights and fiscally conservative, a working-class African-American family in Maryland, then, as now, a mostly blue state, and there was someone such as Republican Sen. Charles Mathias. With his streak of independence and loyalty to principle, he could represent you, your party and even those who didn’t vote for him.
But what does the GOP stand for in 2017? The answer, of course, is President Donald Trump, a man who changes positions and then contradicts himself.
As Republicans scramble to defend him and explain themselves, the efforts have become laughable. After years of defining itself as against anything Barack Obama was for or as the party most likely to besmirch a virtual or actual portrait of Nancy Pelosi with a cartoonish villain mustache, what, seriously, does the GOP believe in?
They have Congress and the presidency — what they have wished for — yet health care, tax and infrastructure reform have stalled. Freezing out Democrats and arguing amongst themselves leave only Trump as touchstone, and isn’t that a pity. He fumes and tweets, angering world leaders fighting terrorism and muddling policy in America and around the globe.
The continuing testimony of intelligence and administration officials — past and present — will be one more test for GOP politicians. Do you value power more than patriotism? Time to review the Constitution.
So far, the president’s allies have supported him before the whole story is known about Russian involvement in the 2016 election or anything else. Attack ads against former FBI chief James Comey return the country to campaign mode. But will that do anything but buy Republicans time with the Trump base?
If Republicans want to keep what they have craved, shouldn’t they stand for more than applauding Fearless Leader in the White House while intoning the mantra: “What he said”?
On issues from climate change to NATO support to criminal justice reform, most Republicans have ceded ground, common sense and positions they previously espoused to the man in the White House. In return, if his letting Jeff Sessions, the loyal longtime buddy, twist in the wind before a vote of confidence is any indication, there is no reason to believe Trump will reward any Republican’s support. If the going gets rough, the president will diss you in a tweet in a New York minute.
House members and senators trying hard not to alienate the base that sticks by the president no matter how many promises are broken, however, have made a choice.
This transformation has been a long time coming, mirrored in my parents’ eventual disillusionment as GOP moderation turned to a Southern strategy they believed betrayed their loyalty; it gained the party votes after Democrats became identified as the party of civil rights in the 1960s, but it damaged the soul of the party.
Democrats, never an organized bunch, should not feel too smug. If the infighting among Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters, and Clinton’s casting of blame in all directions is any indication, staying strong on what being a Democrat means will be a struggle for the out-of-power party. African-American Democratic women are already warning the party it risks alienating an unwavering source of its power if it compromises on core beliefs of equality and diverse representation.
An important lesson playing out in real time is that principle is not a person. Trump’s campaign name-calling has continued in ill-advised tweets and has trickled down to the schoolyard (though in truth, the floor of Congress looks and sounds pretty juvenile some days).
Extreme positions have become normalized and so-called traitors to the Republican Party are called names and threatened with exile. Colin Powell served in the military, and in government under President George W. Bush, but as he chided his fellow Republicans for dog whistles of President Obama as a Muslim threat and the alienation of minority voters with restrictive state laws, he was banished.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bush, warned of the dangers of EPA cuts. And where did that get her, but on the outs?
Mitt Romney was the party’s presidential nominee way back in 2012. But his criticism of Trump’s character probably nixed his chance to be selected for secretary of State. Newt Gingrich, whom many blame for pushing partisanship to toxic levels when he was House speaker, said as much. Mike Huckabee said Romney first needed to publicly repudiate his comments. Way harsh, Pastor Huckabee. But when it comes to Trump’s own less-than-Christian words, behaviors and marriages, Huckabee, and his fellow white evangelicals, are all about forgiveness.
When they go home at night, what do these Republicans tell their children? What do they tell themselves? What will they tell their constituents when they hit the campaign trail?
In Michigan, which voted for Trump last fall, residents, especially in Flint, might want some answers on how a watered-down and defunded EPA will protect their water?
In West Virginia, a Trump stronghold, when the large percentage of citizens on Medicaid ask what’s next, will representatives be able to articulate an answer that makes sense? “Make America Great Again” doesn’t sound quite specific enough. But for now, that’s all they’ve got.
The next time the U.S. needs European allies at its back and there is no one there, will the GOP’s Trump huzzahs lose their oomph?
Some Republican senators — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, for example — make noises about looking to the Constitution and acting accordingly.
Yet they all went along when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky held up a Supreme Court seat that was President Obama’s to fill. Graham said he had “no doubt” Democrats would have done the same thing, using the other-guys-are-worse excuse that we laugh at when misbehaving kids repeat it.
Alas, even Sen. Mathias was eventually doomed by his independence, losing out on leadership of the powerful Judiciary Committee because of his increasing unhappiness at the rightward drift of the Republican Party and the conservative policies of Ronald Reagan. That maneuver was engineered by his own party colleague Strom Thurmond — and isn’t that fitting.
That was also the last straw for my mom. When Reagan spoke at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair in 1980, not far from where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, and spoke of his support of “states’ rights” to a raucous white crowd, she confided that she could not in good conscience ask folks in our neighborhood to vote for him. A woman of principle, she felt the party walked away from her.
If this good Catholic lady were alive today, hearing and seeing the party of Trump, she might even turn independent.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.