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Image: The U.S. Capitol dome is seen in Washington
The U.S. Capitol dome is seen as the House of Representatives meets to vote on the "Delivering for America Act" legislation, prohibiting changes to U.S. Postal Service, in Washington, U.S. August 22, 2020.Erin Scott / Reuters

On Trump, GOP's silence 'can't be excused and won't be forgiven'

For the first time, a corrupt US leader is trying to cling to power through autocratic means. Let history note who lacked the patriotism to speak up.


Late Friday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a steadfast Donald Trump ally, made a mistake by accidentally telling the truth. The Tennessean reported over the weekend that the far-right senator took the outrageous step on Friday night of referring to Joe Biden as the country's "president-elect," despite the fact that Republicans like her are supposed to maintain the fiction that Trump secretly prevailed, reality notwithstanding.

The remark placed her among just a handful of Republican senators signaling acknowledgement of Biden's projected victory. [ABC News' Juju] Chang asked Blackburn whether she had been in contact with Biden to congratulate him, as president-elect, on his victory. "I have not spoken with the president-elect," Blackburn said. "We did have the vice president come to the floor, the vice president-elect come to the floor this week to cast a vote. I was presiding at the time. Didn't get to speak with her."

Soon after, a Blackburn spokesperson told the press that the senator "simply misspoke" during the interview.

The explanation, of course, is difficult to take seriously. When someone means to say "Iraq," but they accidentally say "Iran," that's an example of misspeaking. When a senator refers to Biden as the president-elect and Harris as the vice president-elect, these aren't verbal missteps; they're casual references to reality.

But therein lies the point: there's an expectation that conservative Republicans will keep up appearances and play along with Trump's dangerous game.

As the outgoing president launches an unprecedented assault on his own country's electoral system, and Trump tries to cling to power by demanding the nullification of election results he does not like, there were some hopes that GOP leaders would be responsible and take a stand in support of their own country's democracy.

By and large, that's not happening. The Associated Press noted over the weekend, "With their silence, the Republican lawmakers are falling in one step deeper with the president they have spent four years trying to appease. A few have spoken up. But mostly the Republicans are enabling Trump as he wages an unsubstantiated attack on the election that threatens to erode civic trust and impede Biden's transition to the White House."

Indeed, "silence" appears to be the watchword of the day. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that a handful of GOP senators acknowledged Biden's victory, but the rest "did what many Republicans have done for four years when faced with Trump's brazen, sometimes outlandish actions: They said nothing, or tried to avoid the issue."

Their response, or lack of it, served to harden one of the party's legacies of the Trump years: its complicit silence, which has not only made GOP lawmakers appear subservient to the president but has contributed to a notable shift in the party toward conspiracy theories and away from facts. Only this time, their collective refusal to speak up comes at an unusually perilous moment for American democracy — as a president takes the unprecedented step of wielding the powers of his office to try to subvert the will of the voters.

The New York Times added that this is "a moment of truth for the Republican Party," as their own party's president challenges the foundations of the United States' democracy. Most GOP officials, however, have been cowed "into acquiescence or silence."

A separate Times report went on to note, "While publicly silent, they privately worry that speaking out could invite a primary challenge, squander party enthusiasm before a pair of crucial Georgia Senate runoffs and undermine their message as they embark on a wholesale effort to undercut Mr. Biden's presidency from the start."

That's a sentence worth reading twice. Sure, Republican officials -- who swore an oath to honor the Constitution, not Trump -- could speak out in support of the own country's democracy, but it might cost them GOP support or affect their plans to undermine the duly elected Democratic president as he prepares to clean up Trump's mess.

Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, some Republicans have acknowledged reality in constructive ways and called on the defeated president to choose a responsible course. Yes, the number of GOP officials bucking the White House line has slowly climbed in recent days.

But there are roughly 250 elected Republicans on Capitol Hill and 26 elected GOP governors, and as Trump launched a first-of-its-kind effort to overturn an American election because he didn't like voters' verdict, most of the them can't bring themselves to say, "No, this is wrong, and it must stop."

The Washington Post's Michael Gerson, who served as George W. Bush's chief speechwriter in the not-too-distant past, wrote yesterday, "I like many Republican members of Congress. But those who sacrifice their ideals to the ambitions and insecurities of a single corrupt ruler have ceased to serve the country. Their failure to defend democracy at this moment of testing can't be excused and won't be forgiven."

I suspect GOP leaders will expect the outrage over this scandal to quietly fade away in 2021. And who knows, maybe they're right, and the political world's attention will shift to new fights and new challenges. But for the first time in the American experiment, a corrupt leader is trying to cling to power through autocratic means.

Let history note who lacked the patriotism to do the right thing.