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Republicans Get Angry When You Do the Right Thing
Your views, your votes, your record—none of it matters as much as your fealty to Trump.
IN THE LAST COUPLE OF WEEKS, Republican congressmen Ken Buck and Chip Roy, among a smattering of their House GOP colleagues, have done “the right thing” when tested.
And, as is now normal in the Republican party, they were attacked for it.
When I say “doing the right thing,” I’m not referring to a standard as demanding as that of Kant, the ultimate snitch, who would point an unarmed bank robber toward the vault strictly because lying is bad. We’re talking about politics here, not philosophy; real life, not the best life. So in this context, “doing the right thing” means following a rule, principle, or norm specifically when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable. It’s simply a pass/fail test of proper conduct.
For example, members of Congress are challenged with questions about institutional health and civic responsibility: “Should I call out my fellow party member for deceiving the masses?” “Should I use the official power of government to rebuke a colleague for her political opinions?” These are questions about proper conduct. They are the ones that faced Buck and Roy in recent days. The congressmen answered each the “right” way.
And they are utterly reviled for it by their voters.
LAST MONTH, Ken Buck’s was one of the leading voices speaking in opposition to the nomination of Jim Jordan for the House speakership. His reason was that Jordan—as well as Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who ran against Jordan initially—didn’t answer Buck’s question, even in a private setting, of whether Joe Biden won the 2020 election. This was a heat-check on how much the Big Lie still burns at the highest levels of Republican politics. The answer: blindingly. So Buck, who joined the still-tiny ranks of Republicans who make that issue a litmus test, voted against Jordan.
Within days, Buck had received an eviction notice for his district office in Colorado, which he said was in response to his opposition to Jordan—a claim that the landlord has not disputed—and had been sent four death threats. Despite having backed Matt Gaetz’s effort to oust Kevin McCarthy earlier in the month, and despite a lifetime voting record of 97 percent from the American Conservative Union—5 percentage points higher than that of Speaker Mike Johnson, mind you—Buck was not only on the outs with his base, but some in his base literally wanted him dead (a situation not unique among Jordan’s detractors).
Understandably, Buck decided to do last Thursday what a growing list of former Republican colleagues have done after facing an intolerable combination of threats against family, other pressure from the primary electorate, and difficult electoral math: announce his retirement. “Too many Republican leaders are lying to America, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, describing January 6th as an ‘unguided tour’ of the Capitol, and asserting that the ensuing prosecutions are a weaponization of our justice system,” he said in a video message.
Like Buck, Roy is also a 97th-percentile voter as rated by the ACU, with a well-earned reputation for fighting tooth-and-nail against party leadership. During this year’s original speakership fight back in January, he was on the side of Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar in voting for someone other than Kevin McCarthy. Although Roy’s orientation toward Trump and his base has shifted about—Roy said the former president committed impeachable conduct but didn’t vote to impeach him; he privately asked the administration in December 2020 that Trump go out like a “statesman” but publicly said Liz Cheney “forfeited” her leadership post for attacking Trump’s unstatesmanlike behavior—Roy is at the forefront of efforts to move the House GOP rightward.
Last week, though, he voted to table a resolution to censure Democratic member Rashida Tlaib: “Censuring Representative Rashida Tlaib for antisemitic activity, sympathizing with terrorist organizations, and leading an insurrection at the United States Capitol Complex,” it read.
“Tonight’s feckless resolution to censure Tlaib was deeply flawed and made legally and factually unverified claims, including the claim of leading an ‘insurrection.’ I voted to table the resolution,” he explained in a statement. But he took pains to qualify his vote further for the party base. “In January 2021, the legal term insurrection was stretched and abused by many following the events at the Capitol. We should not continue to perpetuate claims of ‘insurrection’ at the Capitol and we should not abuse the term now.”
In return for voting to maintain an institutional norm, Roy was confronted with the steaming wrath of Catturd. “You’re pitiful,” the MAGA-X user with 2.1 million followers messaged to Roy. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the censure resolution’s sponsor, was furious: “You voted to kick me out of the freedom caucus, but keep CNN wannabe Ken Buck and vaping groping Lauren Boebert and you voted with the Democrats to protect Terrorist Tlaib,” she said. Other comments from MAGA influencers indicative of the base’s response to Roy included, “(RT) if you think Chip Roy is a fucken [sic] traitor for voting with Democrats on a measure to censure Rashida Tlaib” and “If you believe that Chip Soy aka Chip Roy is a treacherous POS for failing to vote on censuring Terror Caucus member the insurrectionist Rashida Tlaib[,] Raise your hand or Repost.”
Lots of people raised their hands and reposted.
YES, YES—IT WAS WELL KNOWN hundreds of episodes before these two that such madness was characteristic of the GOP base, a quality of descending at terminal velocity into a pit of stupidity with no bottom. But that is not the reason to highlight the situations of Ken Buck and Chip Roy.
The reason is that in the costliest error in Republican primary politics is doing the right thing.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about the common trait that linked a person such as Ed McBroom, a down-the-line social conservative legislator in the Michigan Senate, to Jeff Flake, a libertarian-minded former U.S. senator—and Republican politicians and officials in-between. When Flake’s electoral viability cratered, many voices on the MAGA right crowed that it was because he was a Republican In Name Only. When the same thing happened to Liz Cheney, they said it was because the neoconservatism of her family no longer had a place in the party.
But when it happened to McBroom—who talked openly about the possibility of losing his primary yet managed to win re-election, as infrequently happens to officeholders who cross Trump—those arguments didn’t apply. Something else must have been up. It was clear that McBroom’s sin was simply defying Trump, which he did as chairman of the Michigan Senate’s oversight committee when his investigation into allegations of election fraud in 2020 turned up nothing but “demonstrably false theories,” as he wrote in his official report.
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Trump and his supporters have proved time and again that they are entirely willing to attack conservatives, whether you use that term in the traditional way or simply to mean MAGA loyalty.
For starters, there is Mike Pence: one of the country’s most socially conservative governors, who became a champion on the right for enacting Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and who served Trump with unfailing loyalty as vice president—until he at last came to one line he wouldn’t cross, and the Capitol rioters decided they wanted to hang him.
Then there is the ex-military brass who have condemned Trump and confirmed stories emblematic of his despicable character, and whom Trump immediately disowned. James Mattis and John Kelly were in this category, and more recently, Mark Milley has joined it as well.
There have been the Republicans who testified against Trump during the investigation of the House January 6th Committee. There has been Rusty Bowers, Arizona’s former House speaker, who campaigned with Trump during the 2020 election yet lost his primary after speaking up. There has been William Barr, the former attorney general who arguably misled the public about the findings of the Mueller investigation and once was embraced by Trump’s base as a legal hero against the likes of Adam Schiff, but who clashed with Trump over his lies about the 2020 election, quit his administration in December 2020, and is a pariah in Trumpian circles. And don’t forget Judge Michael Luttig, who helped shepherd the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court but is now despised among Republicans for challenging Trump’s post-2020 election lies.
There have been more, of course, because more emerge inflection point by inflection point. Former House Freedom Caucus chairman and Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows reportedly admitted to a federal grand jury that Trump didn’t win the last election. After the news broke, a theory began circulating on MAGA social media that Meadows was an FBI informant, a rumor that Newsmax anchor Eric Bolling picked up on and concernedly asked one of his guests about during a recent interview. “Has he turned on Trump? Can you tell us what you know?” he asked.
“I trust that Mark, Mark thinks the world of President Trump, as do I, and I know you do as well, Eric. I want him to be our next president. I think Mark is in the same place, and Mark is a good man,” said the guest—Jim Jordan.
HERE IS THE QUESTION, updated to account for the last couple of years: What is it that links Flake to Cheney to Pence to McBroom to Mattis to Kelly to Bowers to Barr to Luttig to Meadows to Buck to Roy?
It’s not their position on Ukraine.
It’s not their position on the leaky Southern border.
It’s not free trade agreements, or abortion, or a public policy issue of any kind.
It’s that they spoke an observable truth or defended a principle that transcends party. The moment they did so, they were no longer considered part of the team.
We are living in, as George F. Will recently put it, “the most dangerous U.S. moment since World War II, more menacing than the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis”—because then the country was dealing with just one reckless nuclear power, and today it is dealing with three (China, Iran, Russia). Our national debt is dangerously high. Any serious discussion of the viability of Medicare and Social Security is sidelined indefinitely, even as the tidal wave of Baby Boomers reaches retirement age. The Southern border is indeed in crisis. Emerging technologies such as AI threaten to, at a minimum, have a significant economic impact.
Such a time requires clarity, forward thinking, and moral leadership. But it is abundantly clear that Republicans are not up these challenges—which was not lost on Buck. “It is impossible for the Republican party to confront our problems and offer a course correction for the future while being fixated on retribution and vengeance for contrived injustices of the past.” Indeed, those issues decided the speakership election. They are the raison d’être of the party’s prohibitive nominee for president. They will continue to define a group that cannot credibly call itself “the party of Lincoln”—for today it would resent Abe for his honesty.