Once again this week, President Trump defamed a dead man, cheekily suggesting at a rally Wednesday that the late congressman and WWII veteran John Dingell might currently be burning in hell. To understand the practical effect of the tactic, take a quick roll call of the handful of elected Republicans bold enough to criticize the president’s remark.
Start with the congressional delegation from Dingell’s home state of Michigan, where Trump’s counter-impeachment rally was held. There was Paul Mitchell, who called the comments “dishonorable” and “unacceptable,” There was Fred Upton, who termed them “crass.” And there was Justin Amash, who tweeted to Dingell’s widow and replacement, “Debbie, we are here for you.”
How did they muster the courage to speak out? Mitchell is one of the near-historic number of Republicans in the 116th Congress who have announced they won’t seek reelection. Upton has been rumored all year to be next on the retirement list. Amash left the GOP on July 4 and voted this week for impeachment.
As has been the case the last three years, nothing loosens the Republican tongue quite like relaxing one’s grip on power. Among the still-ambitious, the Dingell comment drew little criticism from his party.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R–Texas), the popular eyepatch-wearing veteran most famous for his moment of cross-partisan civility on Saturday Night Live, bucked the trend, tweeting that Trump’s comments “were totally unnecessary.” And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R – S.C.), who has gone through several cycles of presidential disparagement of his late friend John McCain, bracketed his criticism with praise for his White House golf partner.
“When it came to John Dingell, he made sure he was honored appropriately. He did admire John Dingell’s service,” Graham told Fox News. “But this joke he made last night, he’s made it several times, it’s just not funny.”
Every time Trump drives a bulldozer through the guardrails of political decorum, the Republican Party becomes more Trumpy and less decorous. Michigan’s Mitchell chose to retire this July in reaction to the president’s grotesque suggestion that four congresswomen of color “go back” to their home countries, even though three were born in the United States. “We’re here for a purpose,” Mitchell told the Washington Post, “and it’s not this petty, childish b------t.”
For millions of voters, Trump’s norm-shattering crassness is the whole point. He is the Elephant Man you bring to the beauty pageant, the foam middle finger you wear to the coronation.
Just look at who’s clutching pearls over a mild joke about the longest-serving congressman in history: Fake news CNN! “Swamp mistress” Nancy Pelosi! Meghan McCain! How many more “civil” politicians do we really need?
None of that makes it any more fun for Republican officials to be “badgered with questions” every day about the president’s latest outrage. You could power the entire Eastern Seaboard with the teeth-gritting smiles GOP lawmakers are constantly forced to display on Capitol Hill.
Those Trump-weary Republicans who self-deport from office tend to either be replaced by loyalists to the president — as Bob Corker was by Sen. Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee — or by Democrats, as in the Arizona senatorial swap of Jeff Flake for Kyrsten Sinema. Either way, the remaining GOP looks and sounds more like its leader, while the alienated defenders of civility spin off into the impotent margins.
This dynamic was laid bare during Wednesday’s House impeachment debate, when Republican after Republican echoed Trump’s distinctive brand of insult comedy — “witch hunt,” “massive cover-up,” “Schiff Show.”
Meanwhile, far away from the corridors of power, veterans of past political campaigns for the likes of John McCain and George H.W. Bush were busy this week launching likely futile attempts to loosen Trump’s iron grip on the party they once helped lead.
The Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans opposed to “Trump and Trumpism,” announced its formation Wednesday with the portentous proclamation that “Patriotism and the survival of our nation in the face of the crimes, corruption and corrosive nature of Donald Trump are a higher calling than mere politics.” To defeat him at the ballot box, they’ve got only 85 percentage points to make up!
The president’s makeover of the GOP will almost certainly lead to his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, assuming we get one. But the problem with producing a bunch of mini-me’s is that career politicians lack Trump’s facility for and experience with pro wrestling-style rhetoric.
When Sen. John Kennedy (R–La.) produced outrage-headlines last month by saying about Nancy Pelosi, with Trump standing right behind him, that “it must suck to be that dumb,” the occasion was a Keep America Great rally for Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone. Rispone then lost the election in a Republican-dominated state.
John Dingell won’t be the last dead congressman Donald Trump defames. But he may not have many more opportunities as president.
Matt Welch is editor-at-large at Reason magazine and a contributing writer to Opinion.