Members Only | May 21, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

No, GOP Senators Are Not Cowed

They are willingly deepening the roots of authoritarianism.

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An aspect of white supremacy, reserved for men only, is that it’s always someone else’s fault. It doesn’t matter what I do. It doesn’t matter what decisions I make. I can blame anyone for my errors in judgment, and the best part? White people are going to believe me! I get all the power but none of the responsibility! It’s a grand ole boy’s system.

I was reminded of this while reading reporting about Ron Johnson, US senator of Wisconsin. He’s the Republican chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. It voted along party lines to subpoena records related to Hunter Biden, the son of the next Democratic nominee. (Hunter Biden used to work for Ukrainian gas company Burisma when his dad, Joe Biden, was the vice president.)

If your patriotism calls for an alliance with foreign powers seeking to wound the republic, that’s no longer patriotism.

I was reminded of this while reading reporting about Lindsey Graham, US senator of South Carolina. He’s the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee. He’s seeking a list of Obama administration officials involved in understanding Trump campaign ties to the Kremlin and its efforts to violate US sovereignty in 2016. According to the Post, Graham is helping “advance a narrative that the former president and his allies conspired to inappropriately target Trump, one that Trump has dubbed ‘Obamagate.’”

Johnson seems ready to go where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wouldn’t go, picking up where Trump left off in attempting to betray the US electorate. Graham seems prepared to whitewash the Kremlin’s sabotage of our sovereignty and its role in electing an illegitimate president. Both men are enabling Trump’s purge of career officials more loyal to truth, justice and the American way than they are to him. Yet from what I can tell, neither is being held accountable for his actions. It’s as if they don’t have agency of their own. According to one member of the Washington press corps, whose perspective I take as conventional wisdom, “they’re cowed by Trump.”

Now, the thing about Johnson and Graham (as well as their colleague Chuck Grassley) is they used to be vocal champions of a transparent and accountable presidency—when Barack Obama governed. Whiffs of resistance to congressional oversight by the executive branch were met with sniffy intolerance. Johnson and Grassley even wrote the book (at least a really big report) on the need for empowered inspectors general.

Tip jar!

The same can’t be said of the trio now that a Republican president is mounting a shameful and conspicuous campaign to rid himself of irritating law-abiding good-government gadflies who have the habit of speaking truth to power and humiliating him in public. Trump has quietly fired an array of inspectors general, saying he’s “lost confidence” in them. During the Obama years, Johnson would request reams of documentation justifying unimportant administration decisions. During the Trump years? The president’s word is good enough for him, and that’s all there is to say.

It’s understandable that senators feel enormous pressure to be aligned with presidents from the same party. But there are a thousand ways to uphold the principle of a thing—for instance, that it’s wrong to fire inspectors general in a fit of caprice—without arousing the executive’s enmity. US Senator Susan Collins of Maine has made a virtual art form out of doing just that. She agrees with Trump, but is “concerned” about his statements or is “worried” about how he acts, all the while doing little or nothing to stand in his fitful way. Johnson, Graham and Grassley could follow suit but don’t.

It takes much more than political pressure to turn your back on your own country. It takes an overwhelming lust for power.

Johnson and Graham, however, are doing more than ho-humming or staying mum. They are advancing authoritarianism, driving its roots deep into the republic’s soil. Graham in particular stands to undermine the special counsel’s investigation that, first, implicated the president as an unindicted co-conspirator (in Michael Cohen’s criminal case) and, second, established the fact of Russia’s covert cyberwar against the United States. Graham seems ready moreover to undermine the Senate’s own bipartisan assessment that Vladimir Putin was expressly on Donald Trump’s side.

Johnson and Graham aren’t being cowed by Trump, because it takes much more than being cowed to turn your back on your own country in a moment when more than 95,100 of its people have died from Covid-19; about 38 million of them seek unemployment benefits; and the real jobless rate could be as high as 25 percent. These confederates are aligning not only with the president but with America’s enemy. That requires more than pressure. That requires a choice, one they are making, willingly.

White supremacists in this country have always thought of themselves as more American than anyone else. They believe they represent the authentic nation within a nation. OK, whatever. But that ends at the water’s edge. If patriotism calls for an alliance with foreign powers seeking to wound the nation, that’s no longer patriotism.

It’s the opposite.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.

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

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