An unavoidable recurring trope of this hideous moment in public incivility is concern for the suffering of the oppressor. Buckets of ink are spilled on the pain of the predator, the grief of the duped, and the profound losses of those unfortunate golden boys who missed opportunities and lost chances due to the consequences of their own momentary bad choices. The president of the United States says blatantly racist things while attempting to enforce his race-based agenda, but then suggests that it is he who is suffering the offense of being called racist. He demands apologies for these injuries. All of this of course centers the pain of those deemed important and diminishes the experiences of their victims. It’s also a dangerous prelude to a redemption story; a sinner converted to saint, and who among us doesn’t love the redemption of a sinner more than we care about the agony of the sinned-against?
But more and more, creeping into the public narrative of the reformed baddie and his boundless anguish, another story is emerging: the story of the suffering of the silent collaborators and colluders, and how difficult it is to be forced to choose sides. Be wary of this story.
For a long time in the runup to the 2016 elections, many Republicans, many of whom called themselves Never Trumpers, felt free to condemn Donald Trump in public. After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, Republicans reacted in horror. Sen. Ted Cruz called the president’s comments “disturbing and inappropriate,” tweeting that “there is simply no excuse for them.” Sen. Marco Rubio called them “vulgar, egregious & impossible to justify,” adding that “no one should ever talk about any woman in those terms, even in private.” Paul Ryan issued a statement in which he said unequivocally, “I am sickened by what I heard today. Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.” He also canceled an event scheduled for Trump the next day in Wisconsin. At the time, these reactions were unremarkable. Any sentient listener would have said and done the same. Today, though, with almost no exceptions, Donald Trump’s vicious racist tweets telling four American congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries was met with near-universal and stoic Republican silence. That is to be expected now. Republicans who hold elected offices have long passed the point where they’re expected to react to Trump’s sexist, racist, xenophobic, and outlandish statements. Indeed, they have come to the point where they can brag about their silence, as did Sen .Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who told CNN, in response to Trump’s attack on the women of color in Congress, “I’m working as hard as I can on reducing health care costs. I’m not giving a daily commentary on the president’s tweets.”
Where once there was moral courage in standing up to the president’s despicable comments, now the claim is that the true mark of moral bravery lies in remaining silent. They are dutifully continuing the work of governance, thus goes the hypothesis, making Republicans the true patriots grimly steering the country past the choppy waters of this presidency. Silence has become—like the infamous memo to the file—a heroic public act of Republican defiance. “See,” it says, “I’m just working away here in my lane, not rising to the bait of these culture warriors on both sides.”
The only thing nobler than the silence, they suggest, is their silent suffering. As Carl Hulse noted on Monday in the New York Times, “Republicans may cringe at some of Mr. Trump’s crude comments and insults. They may wince at his easily unmasked falsehoods. They may roll their eyes at his lack of understanding of government fundamentals. To many, his personality itself is off-putting. But he is now their guy.”
Hulse goes on to point out, two paragraphs later, that most Republicans “say they do not see it as their job to be political pundits or to join with the news media and Democrats in castigating Mr. Trump. They also believe that, in most cases, the firestorm lasts only so long and will be quickly followed by the next iteration, making it pointless to get caught up in the repeating cycle.” They have fully disaggregated Trump the social media pig, from … well, what, the magisterial president he otherwise represents? (To be clear, there is no magisterial president. What he represents is a partisan lock on power and fundraising, to be maintained at, apparently, any cost.)
There’s one important move here: They can’t be completely silent. There has to be some solicitous reporting on their sobering discomfort—the cringing, the wincing, the eye-rolls; the notion that they are somehow pained by the president’s naked racist rants (but not in enough pain to do or say anything about it). Axios perfectly captured this ethos Monday with its coffee-out-the-nose laughable social media tagline: “ ‘Republicans With a Conscience Are Cringing’: A Tough Time to Be a Trump Supporter.” As Hulse reports, “Republicans worry that, even at a moment when the president is stirring division, a perceived slight or unwarranted criticism could lead Mr. Trump to throw them off, an outcome that could be ruinous to their political careers.”
This is not the first time we’ve been told that Republicans in Congress are suffering. CNN reported that they were “cringing” in “private” a month ago when Trump told ABC News he’d consider accepting incriminating campaign information about an opponent from a foreign government without calling the FBI. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe was publicly “cringing” at Trump’s similarly terrible tweets last December, even as he celebrated Trump’s immigration achievements. The suffering of Trump supporters knows no boundaries. Cringing is presumably an upgrade on the traumatic “hand-wringing” suffered by Republicans in 2015, after Trump said something vile about Megyn Kelly, and also the injurious “hand-wringing” of John Kasich, who threw in the towel on a primary challenge against Trump in 2020. Hand-wringing plus cringing! Call the doctor! It’s moral carpal tunnel!
We can all have a good laugh at the cowardice of the silent. But let us not become too swept up in their tales of their trauma and suffering. Because therein lies the difference between rewarding cowardice and erasing complicity. Observe Politico reporting this week on the impossible position California Republican Party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson finds herself in. She’s been silent in the face of Trump’s attacks because, poor lamb, according to “one leading Republican” speaking without attribution, “she has nothing, no infrastructure. So, if she criticizes the federal administration … no cabinet secretaries will meet with your donors … she will have literally no money” for the 2020 cycle. One bleeds for her. Such anguish can barely be contemplated.
If political and moral seriousness is dead in the GOP, so be it. It’s hardly clear to me that this is any different from where we’ve been for the past several years. But as contemptible as allowing cowards to take cover behind silence might be, allowing them to whisper their secret suffering to the press is despicable. So the next time some poor GOP leaders hiss at you, under cover of anonymity, how excruciating the hand-wringing plus the cringing plus the eye-rolling has become for them, ask them instead if there is anything the president could do that would cause them to actually speak up, if there is any act of racism or misogyny that could warrant an action, an actual response. And if they are silent, don’t give them the privilege of calling it suffering. Children sleeping under Mylar blankets at the border and eating unthawed burritos are suffering. Republicans afraid of being primaried are collaborating. There is still a difference.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else. Join Slate Plus.Join Slate Plus