IT WAS ONE of those moments where you could feel the public atmosphere growing rapidly more charged. I was standing on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, talking with Mark Sanford, US Representative from Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Sanford, a thoughtful conservative, was having trouble getting his head around the idea that his party would soon bestow its presidential nomination on Donald Trump, a man who had run on issues distinctly at odds with long-time Republican principles.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator whom Trump had flattened on his way to nomination, was addressing the convention. Trump had labeled Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” mocked his wife’s appearance, and suggested his father was somehow linked to the assassination of JFK. That would once have been behavior you’d have expected from a drunken carnival barker, not a major party presidential candidate. But the nation had grown accustomed to such antics from a man unconstrained by traditional notions of truth, dignity, or decency. As Cruz neared the conclusion of his speech, a woman halfway up in the balcony seats stood and started screaming the same phrase over and over again.
“What’s she’s saying?” I asked Sanford.
“I think it’s: ‘Say it, say it, say it,’ ” he replied.
A Trump supporter, she had come to suspect, correctly, that Cruz wasn’t going to endorse Trump in his remarks. Others quickly caught on. In the space of minute or so, the hall turned on a man previously considered a conservative stalwart. Disapproval and derision rained down upon Cruz as he left the podium. “He only had to say three words: ‘I support Donald Trump,’ ” one delegate-cum-aspiring mathematician told me.
He wasn’t going to be a “servile puppy dog,” Cruz said afterward. (Well, maybe not right then; he has since scrambled, tail wagging, into Trump’s lap.) But servile puppy dogs are clearly what the Trump-era Republican Party wants.
Last week, Republican voters turned on Sanford. A long-time advocate of conservative principles who was an occasional Trump critic, he lost a primary race to state legislator Katie Arrington, who campaigned on her strong support for Trump and who declared in her victory speech, “We are the party of Donald J. Trump.”
In an interview, Sanford told me that though he had “all the merit badges on trying to watch out for one’s pocketbook or wallet, a free trade focus, a belief in civil liberties — you can go down the laundry list,” positions like those aren’t driving Republican politics anymore.
So what is?
“Sadly, I’d say loyalty to Trump has become an oversized driver,” Sanford replied. Because of that, though members of Congress will quietly confide their concerns about Trump’s leadership style and about what’s happened to the GOP, “they won’t voice those publicly,” he says.
Time was, voters didn’t want a representative or senator who would blindly follow the party leader. Indeed, it was almost de rigueur for an aspirant to declare that he or she would be an independent voice, supporting the president when they agreed, but courageous enough to speak out when they didn’t.
No longer. The cravenness and sycophancy have grown so pronounced that no less a conservative than George Will has urged voters to back Democrats in the midterms. Well-known national consultant Steve Schmidt, meanwhile, last week renounced his long-time party, saying that with a few exceptions — governors like Charlie Baker, John Kasich, and Larry Hogan — it was “filled with feckless cowards who disgrace and dishonor the legacies of the party’s greatest leaders.”
Now, with John McCain ailing and absent, will anyone try to be a rational, principle-abiding Republican counterweight to Trump? I harbor some hope for soon-to-be senator Mitt Romney. As a candidate, he has reached a modus vivendi with the president. Still, he’ll be in an extremely safe seat in a state that’s not crazy about Trump, so he should be free to speak his mind.
But that, admittedly, is grasping at straws in the midst of a hurricane — a hurricane that threatens to leave the GOP unrecognizable before it passes.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.