July 17, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Despite Attack, the GOP Won’t Fight Back

Trump provides an opening for the Democrats to unite America against Russia.

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Before I started the Editorial Board, I wrote a (somewhat) controversial piece for the Washington Monthly arguing that the Democrats should unite the country against Russia. I said majority opposition to an enemy that attacked our national sovereignty would help mitigate the toxic polarization dividing the nation as well as remind Americans what they are not: willing patsies to an authoritarian mafia state

In the years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Republican Party had made partisanship and patriotism virtually synonymous in the minds of many Americans. But it was clear to me it permanently lost its way after Russian flags were seen waving at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Sure, we were told it was a joke, but the flags reflected years of effort by the Kremlin to forge relationships with key GOP constituencies, particularly gun groups and anti-abortion evangelicals. Hovering above this was the specter of a black American president. For many Republicans, the choice wasn’t hard: side with a “Muslim Kenyan Communist” bent on destroying a Christian nation or with a man who may be a foreign but at least he shared their values. 

Of course, I’m talking about Vladimir Putin. There are many reasons why President Donald Trump’s meeting with the dictator should not be surprising. For one thing, it appeared to confirm the suspicion that Putin has something on Trump. For another, it appeared to suggest that Trump needs Putin now more than ever (either he needed him to win or he needs him to keep winning). But the facet you won’t see widely reported is that key GOP factions already compromised themselves. They had already decided a fascist Russia was better than a liberal America in which white people would be the minority in decades. If Russia could help stop that demographic tide, by way of sabotaging Hillary Clinton, thus thwarting the will of the people, so be it. 

All of this was tenable as long as the president walked a dirty crooked line. He could complain about the investigation into his campaign’s ties to the Kremlin, he could even attack individual law enforcement officials, as long as he more or less balanced those gripes, when the Republicans pressed him to, with something close to boilerplate: that the US is part of alliance to defend democracy; that we are a country of laws, not men; that no one is above the law; etc. As long as it was not quite clear to a majority of Americans that the president of the United States really would, when given a chance, side with our enemy, the Republicans could carry on with an agenda of cutting taxes, gutting regulations, and larding the federal judiciary with mooks. 

That dirty crooked line grew straight and narrow when, as one person put it, Trump through his country under the bus. To be sure, the Republicans are reacting strongly, and the press is scrambling to report that, but it’s fair to ask why. Call me cynical, but it’s not because of some sense of profound patriotism. The Republicans are reacting out of fear—fear that comes when the party is facing daunting odds in the upcoming midterms and the head of the party abandons even any pretense to patriotism.

Republicans are hoping past tactics will suffice. If they pretend to be “dismayed,” “troubled,” and “saddened” enough, perhaps Republican voters won’t punish them in November. It might work. It probably will. But Democratic partisans are already mobilized for their own reasons. Give them a president who can’t choose between America and Russia, however, and partisans have a very powerful new weapon.

I still think the Democrats should unite the country against Russian. For their sake and for the country’s sake. In the beginning, they had a message of health care for all. The message later turned to focus on Trump’s corruption. They can now move into the third pivotal stage. Trust the Republicans to be troubled by the president’s betrayal. Go ahead. But you can’t trust them to defend America from future “acts of war.” The Kremlin attacked us, the Democrats can credibly say, and the GOP won’t fight back.

It’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable party than the current GOP.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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