Some Republicans rationalized their accommodation on the totally unreasonable hope that Mr. Trump — in his 70s, surrounded by sycophants and in possession of unmatched power — would change the habits of a lifetime. Still others convinced themselves they would tolerate what Mr. Trump did just one more time but never again. And yet as Mr. Trump transgressed one ethical line and then another and then another, Republicans continued to justify their silence, their support, or both.
Others believed that since Mr. Trump was president they might as well work with him to get things done in what they perceived as the public interest: judicial appointments, tax cuts, deregulation and the like. In pushing for this, a few individuals, to their credit, never defended Mr. Trump’s indefensible behavior. But far too many did. White evangelicals like Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Eric Metaxas were among the worst offenders.
For other Republicans, vaulting political ambition and cynical calculation were at play. Lawmakers like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose wife and father were viciously targeted by Mr. Trump during the 2016 primary campaign, became lap dogs, hoping to receive Mr. Trump’s blessing and win the loyalty of his supporters. Senator Josh Hawley acted so disgracefully in objecting to approval of the Electoral College votes and feeding baseless conspiracy theories that his mentor, John Danforth, said that “trying so hard” to get Mr. Hawley elected to the Senate “was the worst mistake I ever made in my life.” Lindsey Graham proved to be one of T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” empty of heart, a person without a moral compass. House Republicans like Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar and Mo Brooks showed themselves to be both carnival barkers and cultlike in their devotion to Mr. Trump.
President Donald Trump leaves office with a crimson-stained legacy; a similar stain attaches to those in the party who supported and sustained him, many of them still in positions of power. Both will move on — Mr. Trump to Mar-a-Lago, disgraced, isolated and politically radioactive, more likely to split his party than ever to lead it again; and the Republican Party facing deep internal division, a massive rebuilding and rebranding effort and a very uncertain future.
President Biden inherits a nation sicker, weaker, angrier, more divided and more violent than it has been in living memory. But if we’re fortunate and wise, we will allow the traumatizing effects of the Trump years to catalyze a rededication to ideals we once cherished in public life but cast aside during the Trump era: honor and integrity, compassion and decency, and old-fashioned competence. America is fragmented but also chastened, perhaps ready to rise again. If it does, when it does, it will be after too many tears have been shed and too many hearts have been broken.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”
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