There have been strange days in American politics – Lyndon Johnson suddenly saying he’d had enough and wouldn’t run again, Nixon firing Archibald Cox in that famous Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon resigning the presidency a few month later, Ronald Reagan admitting we had sold arms to the evil Iranians to raise funds for a bunch of right-wingers in Nicaragua that Congress forbade us to support, but he knew nothing about it, because he was a bit befuddled most of the time and wasn’t really in control of things – and of course Bill Clinton saying he did NOT have sex with that woman, as if anyone cared, in spite of what the Republicans were saying about God and morality and whatnot. The Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, helped lead the charge for Clinton’s impeachment. Hastert is now about to go to jail. He’d been a serial child molester all along – he really liked young boys. There seems to be no such thing as normal politics.
All of this wasn’t that bad. On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a walking cane, on the Senate floor, in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days earlier, and Sumner nearly died. Sumner had denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, arguing for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state. Slavery was the issue – or economic freedom and states’ rights. Passions were running high. After that everyone knew the Civil War was coming.
Nothing like that happens anymore. When Donald Trump is deeply insulted he Tweets, but once again passions are running high, and this was the day of reckoning. CNN offers a lively account of what they call a bizarre day in American politics:
Here’s a concept new to the 2016 campaign: Donald Trump and détente. Trump, who built a campaign on lambasting Republican elites, Thursday, came to the citadel of the political establishment – Capitol Hill – for a summit with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other party leaders designed to halt the GOP’s self-immolation.
From the moment the billionaire’s Boeing 757 rolled to a stop to the moment when it lifted into the steel gray skies over Ronald Reagan National Airport nearly six hours later, he whipped up an extraordinary spectacle – perhaps a taste of what is to come if he is elected president.
It was a day – as CNN’s Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta put it – that was about Republicans beginning to build a “tent big enough for the circus that you have seen roll into town.”
The Capitol Dome – glistening white in its newly restored state – has known generations of political drama but can rarely have witnessed such a media carnival- as GOP leaders sat down to talk a truce with the ringleader of their rebellious grassroots.
There’s more than a bit of editorializing here, but things worked out:
At the end of the day, there was a general feeling that after the recriminations of a bitter primary season – things had gone rather better than many people expected.
“While we were honest about our few differences, we recognize that there are also many important areas of common ground,” Ryan and Trump said after their meeting – which lacked a grip-and-grin photo-op but was described by both sides as a good start.
“We will be having additional discussions, but remain confident there’s a great opportunity to unify our party and win this fall, and we are totally committed to working together to achieve that goal.”
This seemed to be bullshit:
The statement included a concession to Trump – recognition that he had brought millions of new voters into the Republican fold. But it also inadvertently hinted at the distance that still remains when the statement talked about unification of the party – a word more often employed to refer to mending nations carved in two by manmade walls, like the Koreas or Cold War-era Germany.
Still, one senator told CNN’s Manu Raju that the meetings had gone well and that the voluble billionaire let others do the talking.
“They actually kind of liked him,” the senator said, who asked not to be on the record.
That’s it? Yes, that’s all there was:
There was one significant piece missing from the day of Republican healing – a formal endorsement of Trump by Ryan. But the speaker left the impression that such a step could happen if follow-up meetings designed to drill into the “weeds” of policy differences between the two men go well.
In short, like in many a French art film from the early seventies, nothing really happened:
For once – Trump, though the center of attention, did not contribute to the political cacophony himself, contenting himself with the Ryan statement and a few Tweets.
But there were some nice touches:
Adding to the spectacle, bagpiper Ben Williams, who played at Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral, played “Amazing Grace” outside the Republican National Committee headquarters in a bid to foster feelings of unity, while protestors, including one wearing a massive papier mache head of Trump, picketed the meeting and a CodePink protestor held a banner reading “Trump is a racist.”
That was very cool, but after the joint nothing-much statement, Ryan added that there was nothing to see here, folks:
“Look, it’s no secret that Donald Trump and I have had our differences. We talked about those differences today. That’s common knowledge,” said Ryan when he emerged from the talks – sounding like someone forced to explain a first date in front of a room of reporters straining for every detail.
“I met him for 30 seconds in 2012. So, we really don’t know each other,” Ryan said.
A reporter asked: “What did you think of his personality?”
“I thought he has a very good personality. He’s a very warm and genuine person.”
That is how junior-high girls talk, but this isn’t junior high:
Trump requested, and got, a meeting with the ultimate Republican establishment fixer – former secretary of state and Treasury secretary James Baker.
It was all too much for Harry Reid, McConnell’s opposite number in the Senate, who provided the Democratic commentary for Trump’s Capitol Hill visit.
“Since Senator McConnell is so enthusiastically embracing Trump, we can only assume he agrees with Trump’s view that women are dogs and pigs,” Reid said, in his characteristic undertakers’ tones.
But Reid’s stunning intervention was only one eye-popping moment of a bizarre day in American politics – the likes of which has become more and more common in the age of Trump.
A few miles away from the hubbub, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank was consuming a nine-course meal made up of his previous columns, as he lived up to a vow to eat his words if Trump won the Republican nomination.
Okay, maybe it was an extraordinarily strange day in American politics, to which CNN adds this:
Meanwhile back in the Mansfield Room of the Senate, Republican senators sat down for their weekly conference and were forced to ‘welcome’ back one of their least favorite colleagues, Ted Cruz, a week after the Texas senator abandoned the presidential campaign trail.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t want to come back,” Cruz said, according to a senator in the room.
Sen. John McCain, who once branded Cruz a “wacko bird,” responded with gallows humor: “We didn’t want you to, either.”
John McCain does have his moments, but that was a sideshow, and Josh Marshall looks at what was really in the Ryan-Trump joint statement:
If you decode the statement, the framework and path forward is laid out with some clarity. Ryan is conceding that Trump has energized the party by bringing in new voters (even though that’s demonstrably not the case – he’s brought regular GOP voters who’d seldom participated in primaries into the process). He is also signaling that he will get behind Trump’s campaign. Just not yet. What Trump has to do is get behind Ryan’s agenda of cutting and/or privatizing social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security as well as other components of the conventional, DC conservative agenda. This almost certainly also means coming down off his hostility to trade deals.
None of that was resolved, and Marshall adds this:
All signs point to the House GOP falling quickly into line with Donald Trump. Indeed, it’s not clear to me that #NeverTrump even really exists anymore outside of a thin membrane of conservative writers and intellectuals who may be acting admirably but have little real electoral pull. But remember, the House is heavily gerrymandered. It may be plausible that a total blowout at the top of the ticket could lose Republicans the House. But it’s not likely. For a number of reasons, House Republicans have a lot of ways to bundle up to withstand a Trump electoral storm, if indeed it turns out to be a storm.
The Senate is an altogether different matter.
As we know, Senators must win entire states. Only a very small number of states are as tightly locked in partisan terms as a well-gerrymandered district. And the GOP Senate Majority, having to defend the big and sometimes marginal gains of 2010, was in jeopardy well before Donald Trump arrived and Antonin Scalia passed away.
What I hear from folks on the Hill, talking to backbench Republicans, is that the resistance to Trump is fading fast. We’ll know whether something has really changed if we see any change from the Republican senators from blue and purple states start to get on board.
Marshall doesn’t expect that and he raises another issue:
As Donald Trump and the GOP establishment go through this delicate dance toward a marriage of convenience, there are two or three big policy initiatives that are usually referenced as the ones that are just unacceptable to mainstream Republicans, too crazy to be considered, unconstitutional or just too politically damaging. The most frequently mentioned are Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country and the Trump TajMaWall he says Mexico will agree to pay for.
This strikes me as odd because despite how odious these ideas are, there’s very little mention of what is undoubtedly the craziest, most dangerous, most expensive and brutal of his policies: his plan to deport roughly 3% of the current US population in 18 months.
Marshall thinks this deserves more consideration:
So many of Trump’s ideas are so terrible, I hesitated to say “most” because is it really worse than banning members of an entire religion? It’s sort of like comparing serial killers. They’re all just really bad. My reason for saying it’s the worst though is that as horrible as the Muslim ban is and clearly unconstitutional, it’s not allowing in people who aren’t currently here. It’s not uprooting millions of people, dividing families, probably dumping people into countries that can’t reabsorb them.
Let’s remember the idea. Trump says he will create a “deportation force” which will round up and deport approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in 18 months. This might not unreasonable be characterized as a war crime.
But wait, there’s more:
Despite just being a bad idea on numerous counts, just in very concrete terms there are credible estimates that the costs of such an operation could run to half a trillion dollars. This would also involve effectively orphaning huge numbers of children who were born in the US and thus citizens but are the children of undocumented immigrants. In some cases, it would probably mean the de facto deportation of those American citizens.
I don’t have a sufficient grasp of the numbers, geographic concentrations and so on to give hard estimates. But you cannot deport a non-trivial percentage of a country’s population and not have substantial economic dislocations, likely heavily concentrated in particular regions of the country. It is probably also true that you could not pull off this kind of operation in anything like that kind of time frame without committing numerous civil rights and civil liberties violations, not only of people with no legal status but also of lots of Americans or people here with legal status. Trump has already said he’ll simply ignore the immigration courts that govern the deportation process.
These are all practical concerns. It doesn’t even get at the moral dimensions of the policy, which are ones that basically speak for themselves.
Does Trump still plan to do this? Do the politicians who are now supporting his candidacy support this?
They’d rather no one asks them that question, but Francine Kiefer points out that, in general, for some Republicans, Trump presents a moral dilemma:
Donald Trump is making the rounds on Capitol Hill Thursday, searching for unity with Republican leaders, including reluctant House Speaker Paul Ryan. But for some GOP lawmakers, backing the brash billionaire or rather, not backing him – is more than a matter of agreeing on tax cuts or trade, immigration or national security.
“I will not support Mr. Trump,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida has told the CBS affiliate in Miami. “That is not a political decision; that is a moral decision.”
Well, not many are saying that so directly:
It’s hard to know how many of his colleagues share this view. Congressman Curbelo, who caucuses with the pragmatic wing of the conference, says “a lot” of Republicans have such concerns, some expressing it publicly and others privately. On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, articulated the moral dimension in a commentary:
“Those who support Trump, no matter how reluctantly, have crossed a moral boundary. They are standing with a leader who encourages prejudice and despises the weak. They are aiding the transformation of a party formed by Lincoln’s blazing vision of equality into a party of white resentment. Those who find this one of the normal, everyday compromises of politics have truly lost their way.”
Those are stiff words, and interviews with several Republican lawmakers in advance of Trump’s visit found that some did not agree with them. Some say Hillary Clinton is also an immoral choice, and for that reason, they’re reluctantly backing Trump.
But that is damned hard, so there are contortions:
In a last-ditch effort to rescue his campaign in the Hoosier state, Mr. Cruz lashed into Trump, calling him a “serial philanderer,” among other things. Trump has been open, even bragging, about his sexual exploits. He told reporters back in December that his “indiscretions” would be fair game for reporters, even as he’s made much of Bill Clinton’s womanizing.
But other Republicans see things differently. Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, one of the most conservative members in the House, says he understands Curbelo’s perspective. Curbelo says he views both Trump and Mrs. Clinton as dishonest, and will vote for neither…
But Congressman Franks argues that the choice is “binary.” And when the antiabortion lawmaker compares Trump with Clinton on moral principles, on respect for fellow human beings, on protecting the Constitution, and protecting the republic “to keep it intact for future generations” – on all those fronts “there is no contest. Clinton will bring destruction to us in all of those areas, whereas Mr. Trump might.”
Still, Trump is a moral problem:
On the Senate side, another deep skeptic of Trump, moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, says she wouldn’t sit in judgment of the presumed nominee. She has repeatedly called on him to stop insulting people, to make amends with the Muslim community and others whom he has alienated. “But I’m not going to judge him as a human being.” Indeed, she has not foreclosed the possibility of eventually supporting him.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, ducking into an elevator, explained that “I’m a great believer in redemption, and people being able to change their lives, and hopefully, he’ll fit that category.”
Yeah, and pigs will fly. Trump suddenly becoming a new man? That bagpiper may have been playing “Amazing Grace” outside the Republican National Committee headquarters – “Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me” and all that – but Trump would only be puzzled by those words. He’s a wretch? The concept would puzzle him, and on the other side, there are the reminders that Republicans talking about morality is a bit rich:
“Some Republicans – including members of their leadership – have said they cannot support the vile rhetoric and radical proposals of the Republican front-runner,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California in a press conference Wednesday. “But year after year, Republicans have enthusiastically turned their intolerance and their discrimination into legislation … whether it’s insulting President Obama, women, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT Americans, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between what Donald Trump says and what the House Republicans have been saying all along.”
This was hardly a day of reckoning. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson saw something else:
Save us all the faux drama. We already know how this star-crossed courtship is going to end: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) will decide that Donald Trump isn’t such an ogre after all, and they’ll live unhappily ever after.
Ryan will be unhappy, at least. Trump has stolen his party, and there’s nothing Ryan can do in the short term to get it back.
“I heard a lot of good things from our presumptive nominee,” Ryan told reporters after his much-ballyhooed Thursday meeting with Trump. “I do believe we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified to bridge the gaps and differences.”
Translation: Ryan may still not be “there yet,” in terms of a formal endorsement, but we should have no doubt about where he’s headed.
This was a capitulation:
Trump came to Washington for meetings with Ryan and other GOP establishment figures as a conqueror, not a supplicant. His populism, xenophobia, isolationism, bigotry and evident love of big government may be anathema to the Republican elite, but the party’s base clearly feels otherwise. Anyone choosing self-interest over principle – a habit I have observed among politicians – would think twice about opposing a man who has received more primary votes than any previous GOP nominee. Thus we witness a shameful parade of quislings.
And Robinson has his wall of shame:
The most galling surrender may have been that of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who says he will support the nominee even though Trump cruelly ridiculed him for being shot down and captured during the Vietnam War.
McCain’s military service was a profile in courage; what he’s doing now is not. Leaving aside the personal insult, McCain has spent his career advocating a muscular foreign policy. His has been one of the loudest and most persistent voices arguing that more U.S. troops should be sent to Syria and Iraq. Trump, by contrast, has proclaimed an “America first” doctrine that focuses resources on solving problems at home. Trump has even expressed deep skepticism about NATO, which has been the cornerstone of the West’s security architecture for more than half a century.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), McCain’s closest soul mate on national security issues, is one of the few leading Republicans who remain in the “never Trump” camp. He vowed this week that “no re-education camp” would change his mind.
What’s the difference between the two amigos? Graham doesn’t have to face South Carolina voters again until 2020. McCain is running for reelection this year – and watched as Trump scored a blowout victory in Arizona’s presidential primary in March.
One must be practical, but that solves nothing:
The party of Lincoln has a storied past – the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s, for example, never could have made it through Congress without GOP support. This heritage has been dishonored in recent years; among other transgressions, Republican governors and state legislatures across the country are trying to discourage minority voters with restrictive voter-identification laws. But there are those, such as Ryan, who profess to believe that the party can still be compassionate and inclusive.
Not with Trump in charge, however. Trump’s appeal has been built on anger, grievance and nostalgia for a golden age that never was (at least for women and people of color). To the extent he has any coherent political philosophy, it is one of exclusion. His one unwavering promise involves the building of a wall.
Everything else, it seems, is negotiable.
And everyone knows how this turns out:
Ryan acknowledged after his meeting with Trump that “differences” remain. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has endorsed Trump, as has most of Ryan’s leadership team in the House. If Ryan were to announce at this point that he deemed Trump unfit for the presidency and therefore could not support him, he would become the leader of a movement with few followers.
The Republican Party will not be united this fall. In what promises to be a display of cravenness on an epic scale, it will pretend to be.
That will have to do. This wasn’t an epic day of reckoning in American politics. Passions may have been running high, but actually, nothing much happened. Nothing was resolved. The bagpiper, however, was a nice touch. This may not have been one of the stranger days in American political history, but it may have been the first one with bagpipes.