In defense of dissent 'in a time of war'

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with supporters during a campaign rally at the USS Wisconsin battleship in Norfolk, Va., Oct. 31, 2015. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with supporters during a campaign rally at the USS Wisconsin battleship in Norfolk, Va., Oct. 31, 2015.

Donald Trump and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have been trading criticisms for months, but the intensity of their dispute escalated quite a bit over the last few days. After the president said the Tennessee Republican "didn't have the guts" to run for re-election, Corker lowered the boom.

"It's a shame the White House has become an adult day care center," the senator wrote. "Someone obviously missed their shift this morning." In a New York Times interview, Corker went quite a bit further, explaining his "concerns" about Trump's stability in more detail.

Not surprisingly, Trump's boosters are not pleased. Kellyanne Conway called the senator's criticisms "incredibly irresponsible," adding in reference to Corker's rebukes, "World leaders see that."

It's that last part of Conway's reaction that came to mind while reading about Breitbart's Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, calling on the GOP senator to resign.

"Sen. Corker is an absolute disgrace," Bannon, who left the White House in August, told Fox News' Sean Hannity. "If Bob Corker has any honor, any decency, he should resign immediately. He should not let those words stand."Bannon said Corker's comments were "totally unacceptable in a time of war.""We have troops in Afghanistan, in the northwest Pacific and Korea, we have a major problem that could be like World War I, in the South China Sea, in the Persian Gulf, we have American lives at risk every day."

The point of pushback like this isn't subtle: in "a time of war," harsh criticisms of the president should be seen as potentially dangerous.

And if this seems a little familiar, it's because we confronted a similar tack in the recent past.

Readers of a certain age may not have been old enough to remember this in detail, but during much of the Bush/Cheney era, many of the White House's allies tried to stifle dissent by saying disparaging the president in a time of war made Americans less safe.

I remember a piece the late Ed Koch wrote in 2007, in which he argued, "Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are seeking to humble, embarrass and, if they can, destroy the President and the prestige of his position as the Commander-in-Chief who is responsible for the safety of our military forces and the nation's defenses. By doing so, they are adding to the dangers that face our nation."

Related rhetoric was far too common at the time. With troops in harm's way, Bush's allies said, it was outrageous to disparage the Commander in Chief. The White House's allies routinely threw around words like "traitor" and "fifth columnists." Ari Fleischer famously warned Americans that they "need to watch what they say."

I lost count of how many times I heard conservatives effectively argue, "Al Qaeda can hear you. To appear divided in a war helps our enemies."

Of course, all of that changed in January 2009, at which point Americans had a patriotic duty to defend political criticisms of people in power at all costs. Republicans didn't much care how many U.S. troops were deployed when they went after Barack Obama as a lawless terrorist sympathizer who wasn't even born in the United States.

And wouldn't you know it, the pendulum is apparently swinging once more. Donald Trump never hesitated to try to tear down Obama's presidency in a time of war, but to hear Trump's allies tell it, Bob Corker and his cohorts should respect a level of decorum that the president ignored for eight years. After all, there are "American lives at risk every day."

These attempts to stifle dissent were misguided in the Bush/Cheney era, and they haven't improved with age.