During an appearance in Michigan, former House Speaker John Boehner spoke ruefully about the state of his party. "There is no Republican Party. There's a Trump Party," he said. "The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere."
Unfortunately for Boehner, it is not that easy for the GOP to avoid culpability. The former Republican leader can't simply absolve his party of responsibility for what takes place in the Oval Office. After all, President Trump is a Republican, not a Democrat. He made his way to the highest levels of power through Boehner's party.
Over the years, moreover, the GOP opened the door to this kind of politics — the disregard for norms of governance, the adversarial posture toward institutions, and the willingness to throw into the public conversation arguments that are untrue or tied to extremist elements of the political spectrum. And congressional Republicans, who have immense power, have done almost nothing to push back against the President when he aggressively flexes his muscles.
Boehner was there at the moment when the tea party came to town. The new generation of Republicans who arrived in Washington during Barack Obama's presidency were a rambunctious bunch. They were willing to take draconian steps to achieve their goals, even threatening to send the nation into default over spending disputes with the administration. The tea party used Fox News as a major platform to spread its narrative. Many Republicans were comfortable being part of conversations such as the Birther movement, which relied on falsehoods, to score political points.
When he was speaker of the House, Boehner made a strategic decision to work with the tea party, recognizing that it was a powerful bloc of votes within the GOP conference. He invited its members into the halls of power as a way to strengthen the party. "Garbage men get used to the smell of bad garbage," he explained upon his retirement.
In the end, the tea party, now called the Freedom Caucus, effectively sacrificed him when he no longer served their purpose. Freedom Caucus leaders Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows have proven to be among the President's most stalwart allies on Capitol Hill.
For the most part, Republicans have not used their power to do anything to check the President's behavior. For every statement that comes from a Sen. Jeff Flake, who has issued general warnings about the damage that Trump has inflicted on democratic institutions, there has been very little pushback on specific issues.
As the President has carried on his nonstop campaign to discredit every person and institution that has been associated with the Russia probe, in practice most Republicans have done very little to stop him. The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee went so far as to work with Trump by essentially shutting down any semblance of a real investigation. The chairman, Devin Nunes, has raised over $2.3 million in six weeks, commanding a $5 million war chest, as a reward for his efforts.
Ironically, one of the few examples of what Republican pushback would actually look like came from Trey Gowdy, the retiring South Carolina congressman who has been a rightward extremist in the eyes of most Democrats.
A member of the tea party and the point man in the Benghazi investigation that hounded Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state, Gowdy decided to make some of the most pointed remarks against Trump's baseless allegations that the FBI illegally spied on his campaign.
Gowdy defended the FBI and insisted that it had used proper techniques. Gowdy, who was at the briefing with the Justice Department, went on the mecca of conservative politics, Fox News, to say: "I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do. It has nothing to do with Donald Trump." The statement was a blow to Trump's "spy-gate" campaign and, at least temporarily, took the wind out of that particular story.
Gowdy's defiant stance is what it means for a Republican to stand up to President Trump. It means rebutting specific claims that come from the President that are grounded in conspiracy theories, falsehoods and rumors. It means supporting legislation, such as the failed bill that would have protected special counsel Robert Mueller, that place real restraints on the President's power. It means refusing to vote for landmark legislation that the administration desperately wants, as Sen. John McCain did when he gave a thumbs down to the Obamacare repeal and replace bill.
The problem with Boehner's statement is that most Republicans don't have any interest in doing this. He is right that the Republican Party has become Trump's party, but that has been a choice and not forced upon them while they were napping. Many Republicans have been much more proactive about building a party that would allow for Trump to be up top and then facilitating his political standing.
Many Republicans see a clear electoral advantage to supporting the administration, particularly with unemployment numbers having reached historic lows. With new polls suggesting that the predicted Blue Wave in this fall's midterm elections might just turn out to be a ripple, and a booming economy, alongside a potential diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, the odds keep diminishing that Republicans will show any interest in trying to stop the President's more destabilizing behavior.
It is clear we are at the point where the Republicans will have to take ownership of President Trump, for better or worse, and finally acknowledge that he is the leader the party has chosen. It is through the Republican Party that the nation entered the Age of Trump, and if he weakens our democracy, it will be the GOP that will have to take the blame.
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