Five years ago, we all had a hearty laugh when Donald Trump descended the golden escalator to introduce himself and his ugly brand of politics to the American people. We didn’t take it seriously then, and Trump rolled through the Republican field of 17 like he has all his life: By doing and saying things so outrageous and beyond the pale, all anyone could do was stare, mouth agape.
Four years ago, not enough of us believed Trump could actually beat Hillary Clinton. After all, his campaign was a shambles, he was the disastrous human being we all knew him to be, and every major poll showed him getting crushed come November. It was OK to oppose him, because he wasn’t really a Republican, and Clinton, at worst, was status quo antebellum.
Clinton was a well-known force in the insular world of D.C. politics where names and faces at the top might change, but the political bureaucrats were always in place to ensure the machinery of government and patronage sailed smoothly along.
Then Trump won, and Republican leaders and the establishment split into two, unequal camps. Those of us who recognized who he was and what he would become were tagged “Never Trumpers” and mostly tilted at windmills for three years as we came to grips with what Trump had wrought on the country.
You make up the larger slice of the Republican universe. You didn’t want to see him elected, but once Trump was in office, you did what all good apparatchiks do: You found a relatively safe place from which to project power onto your little slice of the world.
You told yourself that it was important to serve in the administration even if you didn’t like him. You were, after all, trying to maintain some sanity within an otherwise schizophrenic government whose leader had no interest in governing and whose senior political adviser was an avowed Leninist — ready, willing and now able to burn down long-standing institutions.
Even still, Trump was not so much a threat to the country, but a vehicle by which to accomplish long-held policy goals such as more conservative judges on the federal bench, a tax cut you had no intention of trying to pay for and finally repealing Obamacare. You got two out of three done before you lost the House in 2018, and Barack Obama’s signature legislation only survived because the late John McCain chose to stand up for the country in his last heroic act, in a life filled with them.
Despite all that, you weren’t really too worried. You told yourself that so long as the economy was strong, and the country was at peace, Trump could not or would not do much lasting damage to the country. But then he went ahead and tried to submarine the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden by pressuring the president of Ukraine to undertake a “domestic political errand.”
And here, dear friends, is the decision you made to put politics over the Constitution. You knew, as we’ve always known, that Trump’s main driver is self-preservation. You — the advisers, consultants and consiglieri to Republican senators and other grandees — decided it was more important to let him off the hook, early in an election year, than stand up for what’s right.
In that moment, all the talk of payrolls and feeding your families and standing up for conservative values became nothing more than more excuses for collaboration. Your bosses ran to the microphones in the Capitol halls to tell reporters, the nation and the world that they knew what Trump had done was impeachable, but they were going to let him off the hook anyway. So they did.
A month later, the coronavirus slammed into the United States, a public health and economic tsunami that many longtime experts warned of, but no heed was given. You saw, maybe for the first time, what Donald Trump in the Oval Office meant: Millions of Americans sick and out work. Hundreds of thousands dying. Still, with this realization, it was not enough for any of you or your clients to step up in defense of the nation.
When Trump invoked the language of Bull Connor and George Wallace, you crafted talking points and videos about the tearing down of Confederate statues, tried to scare white America into believing that Black America was coming to get them, and that America’s “heritage” was on the line. Talk of states’ rights and overreach of federal power was not to be found on your lips.
Your collaboration deepened, the path back toward redemption became harder to find and you pressed forward into the darkness.
Only once, when Trump mused about moving Election Day, did any of you squawk. Both you and Trump saw it for what it was, though. Once again he tossed a hand grenade into the middle of political life, and you had the easy opening to slap his wrist and wag your finger because you both knew what he’d said was fallacy.
When Trump and his goons Chad Wolf (badly acting secretary of Homeland Security) and Attorney General Bill Bar (interior minister — Poland 1973) are deploying nameless paramilitaries into American streets, where were you to be found? Blaming the “Never Trumpers” for your own failures and many of your clients facing defeat this November.
And now, finally, when it becomes clear that Donald Trump, understanding his catastrophic failures, is likely to be swept out of office, along with some of your bosses, he is outright attempting to steal the election. Where are you? Probably sitting in your home office in Chevy Chase or McLean, railing at those who’ve betrayed you and looking for a way to save your own businesses should the blue wave wash over you this fall.
But what if Trump succeeds? What if manages to mess with the election enough so that no winner can be named? What if he wins? Where will that leave America and democracy?
Now, this very moment, is your time for choosing: Will you stand with the forces of Trump, authoritarianism, nepotism and oligarchy? Or will you fight for all the people of the United States and send this president and his gang packing back to Mar-a-Lago?
If he wins, all those public affairs and PR contracts on which you built your businesses in that quaint townhouse won’t be coming back. The government and its largesse will be directed only to those mostly loyal to the Dear Leader. Will you still say, “I’ve got a family to feed?” Probably.
If Trump does lose this November, however, your names and your actions will go down as some of the most odious in history. We’ll all know that when you had a choice to make —darkness versus light, a good man versus a bad man, America or Trump — you stood up to be counted with the forces that so many of our fellow citizens died fighting, and you will live in shame and ignominy. Only you can rescue yourselves from that fate.
Reed Galen is an independent political strategist and co-founder of The Lincoln Project. Follow him on Twitter @reedgalen.