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In private, Republicans acknowledge the motivating power of fear

A tie decorated with elephant mascots at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Fla. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)
A tie decorated with elephant mascots at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Fla.

Publicly, several Republican senators were rather candid when describing Donald Trump's guilt during his impeachment trial. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) conceded his party's president "crossed the line" with his illegal extortion scheme. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described the president's behavior as "shameful and wrong." Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Trump is "guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust."

Obviously, comments like these should make it difficult for the White House and its allies to characterize yesterday's acquittal votes as a complete exoneration. But they also raise a related point: if this is how some GOP senators are speaking in public, what might they be saying in private?

Two weeks ago, when the impeachment trial was just getting underway, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told the Washington Post, "I hear from individual Republicans about how troubled they are, that they really are becoming convinced" of Trump's guilt. He added, "The question is, how afraid are they of this president?"

The Ohio Democrat elaborated on this point yesterday with a New York Times op-ed.

For the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator. They are afraid that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname like "Low Energy Jeb" and "Lyin' Ted," or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or -- worst of all -- that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary. They worry:"Will the hosts on Fox attack me?""Will the mouthpieces on talk radio go after me?""Will the Twitter trolls turn their followers against me?"

Brown added, "In private, many of my colleagues agree that the president is reckless and unfit. They admit his lies. And they acknowledge what he did was wrong. They know this president has done things Richard Nixon never did. And they know that more damning evidence is likely to come out."

I'll confess that part of me finds this reassuring, at least to a small degree. The more ridiculous Trump's presidency becomes, the more I find myself wondering whether folks like Senate Republicans even take note of his abuses and antics. To this extent, Sherrod Brown's peek behind the curtain is helpful: at least some GOP senators recognize what's happening in the White House and they're willing to concede privately that they're uncomfortable with it.

But all things considered, it's hard to be too reassured by a party overcome by cowardice, willing to put their fears of partisan blowback over the nation's interests.