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SoVaNow.com / February 01, 2017Who is Eliot A. Cohen? A professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of its school of advanced international studies, an advisor to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a conservative foreign policy thinker and prominent author, Cohen has a new piece out this week in The Atlantic. “A Clarifying Moment in American History,” it's called, and it's well worth reading from start to finish. Here’s how it begins:
I am not surprised by President Donald Trump’s antics this week. Not by the big splashy pronouncements such as announcing a wall that he would force Mexico to pay for, even as the Mexican foreign minister held talks with American officials in Washington. Not by the quiet, but no less dangerous bureaucratic orders, such as kicking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of meetings of the Principals’ Committee, the senior foreign-policy decision-making group below the president, while inserting his chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, into them. Many conservative foreign-policy and national-security experts saw the dangers last spring and summer, which is why we signed letters denouncing not Trump’s policies but his temperament; not his program but his character.
We were right. And friends who urged us to tone it down, to make our peace with him, to stop saying as loudly as we could “this is abnormal,” to accommodate him, to show loyalty to the Republican Party, to think that he and his advisers could be tamed, were wrong. In an epic week beginning with a dark and divisive inaugural speech, extraordinary attacks on a free press, a visit to the CIA that dishonored a monument to anonymous heroes who paid the ultimate price, and now an attempt to ban selected groups of Muslims (including interpreters who served with our forces in Iraq and those with green cards, though not those from countries with Trump hotels, or from really indispensable states like Saudi Arabia), he has lived down to expectations.
Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity — substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.
From this pungent introduction, Cohen issues a plea to his friends and associates on the right: “For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.”
Why would this piece by Professor Cohen — with whom I ordinarily might find little common ground, particularly given his background as a Bush-era neocon — strike such a nerve? In part it’s his bracing assessment of what lies ahead with this nefarious and vile gang in charge in of the White House. Who is Steve Bannon? Trump’s top advisor is often described as a “nationalist” or “white nationalist,” an overly polite way of characterizing his racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic white supremacist views. The Trump White House issued its ill-conceived Muslim travel ban on Friday, which happens to be International Holocaust Remembrance Day, then compounded the insult by producing a statement in honor of the observance without identifying Jews as the prime targets of Nazi genocide. “[W]e are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered,” said a White House spokesperson, offering an excuse that could have come from a Holocaust denial website. Alas, such behavior is of a piece: “He will do much more damage before he departs the scene,” writes Cohen of our new president, “to become a subject of horrified wonder in our grandchildren’s history books.” They will ask many difficult questions, to be sure.
I was wrong about the outcome of the election. But I and millions of other people of a like mind were not wrong about the nature of the man who now occupies the White House. In two short weeks Trump’s already-low approval ratings have cratered still further, as Americans absorb the full scope of his bizarre, power-hungry, narcissistic behavior. The emotional neediness of this deeply strange individual seems without limit. You wonder if Trump can hold up in office for four more weeks, much less four more years. Ever since the presidential election, America’s popular vote loser has done nothing but diminish himself further in the public eye. The Electoral College may fallen in his favor, the esteem of the people is another matter entirely.
And yet: The demonstrations, the marches, the upsurge in grassroots activism and the blinkered amazement of those who watch and wonder just what in Hades is happening to their country — that is to say, people ripe for change, but not this: all these things mean nothing if Republicans in Congress insist on having the president’s back notwithstanding the damage their actions may inflict on the country’s soul. The Grand Old Party brims with elected officials who loudly proclaim their patriotism and upstanding moral character at the slightest prompt. Do these members have any real courage? In Eliot Cohen’s devastating take on the present moment, the time for honorable conservatives to display their bona fides is here: “Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist.”
So which will it be, Tom Garrett? Cowardice and opportunism, or honest representation? Garrett, our new 5th District congressman replacing Robert Hurt, is a former Army officer whose service to the country warrants our admiration and praise. Where does Garrett’s sense of duty lie now? To his country, or to his party? It’s no secret why Republicans put up with Trump: As volatile as the new president is, Trump constitutes an essential seat in the Republican Party’s triumvirate of power: control of both houses of Congress goes only so far without a Republican in the White House. (One may soon be able — again — to add a majority on the Supreme Court to the list of right-wing power centers.)
Members of the Grand Old Party have long sought after many policy goals, with varying degrees of candor and directness: slashing the social safety net for the poor and middle class; distributing income upward to the very wealthy through regressive tax policies; imposing an array of backward-looking and often spiteful social policies. As much as I disagree with each of these objectives, at least they’re part of a framework of belief that extends beyond a quest to accumulate power in the tiny hands of an aspiring autocrat. Other than perhaps Richard Nixon, I’ve never seen a major figure in the Republican Party who represents such a clear and present danger to American democracy as Trump. Yet for all his domineering tendencies and fervent support in some quarters, it’s clear that Trump sits atop a political house of cards. Once a few Republicans in elective office in Washington withdraw their support, the whole edifice will come tumbling down.
Given their druthers, Republican politicians such as Tom Garrett would (at best) keep their heads down and try to stay out of Trump’s line of fire. The key to dealing with our new congressman and others like him is to make them fear the opposing volley even more. Air your thoughts about the malevolent Trump regime in whatever manner suits you best, but keep in mind that placing calls and writing letters to your congressman will have much greater impact than spouting off on Facebook. Go march on Washington, sure, but get involved locally, too, in Buckingham and Farmville and Charlottesville and Fauquier and all other corners of the (gerrymandered) 5th District. “There is nothing to fear” in the present moment, writes Eliot Cohen; “rather, patriots should embrace it. The story of the United States is, as Lincoln put it, a perpetual story of ‘a rebirth of freedom’ and not just its inheritance from the founding generation …. There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day.”
To reach Rep. Garrett at his Washington office: send letters to 415 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. Phone: 202-225-4711. Danville district office: 308 Craghead Street, Suite 102D, Danville, VA 24541. Phone: 434-791-2596. It’s way past time to pop a few bubbles in Washington.