Americans have been blessed with steady leadership at critical moments in the country’s history — Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II, John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.
But on Thursday night, as a frazzled nation awaited results of a tight presidential election conducted amid a surging pandemic, the nation bore witness to the sorry spectacle of a president spewing a litany of lies and undermining the democratic process.
With his reelection chances slipping away, Donald Trump shattered any lingering illusions that he would face the prospect of defeat with the sort of dignity and grace that the United States has come to expect of its leaders.
Baseless ballot conspiracies
Trump didn’t calm the nation. He didn’t tell Americans to be patient as overwhelmed election workers count record numbers of mail-in ballots necessitated by the coronavirus. He didn’t promise to abide by the will of the people.
Instead, for 17 minutes the president spun baseless conspiracies so ceaselessly that one line of thought seemed to collide with the next. He claimed victories in states he hasn’t won. Without evidence, he rambled about illegal votes, about people trying to steal the election, about “tremendous corruption and fraud.”
His remarks were so appalling that the nation’s three major networks, with their combined 22 million viewers, cut away in the middle of it all.
Of course, where there is actual evidence of mistakes or wrongdoing by state or county election officials, legal challenges can be warranted. But Trump is engaging in a long-telegraphed effort to hold onto power. He is taking a page from the authoritarian playbook and eroding citizens’ faith in the nation’s bedrock institutions.
The time has come for Trump’s fellow Republicans to truly put America first and say: Enough.
Where are Republican elders?
During the Watergate crisis of 1974, when another scandal-plagued president was intent on clinging to power, GOP leaders of the House and Senate, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, chose to set politics aside for the good of the country. These leaders met with Richard Nixon in his working office at the Old Executive Office Building and told him that he had lost Republican support in Congress. The jig was up. Two days later, Nixon resigned.
During the nearly four years of Trump’s presidency, with few exceptions, Republican political leaders have habitually stood silent as the president indulged in inflammatory and scandalous conduct.
The 45th president has become famous for flaunting tradition and eviscerating norms when and where it pleases him. His tens of millions of supporters love this renegade element of his persona. But now his actions are becoming more desperate and far more destructive.
If it becomes apparent in the hours and days ahead that Democrat Joe Biden is the nation’s choice as the next president, it will be incumbent upon senior Republican leaders to have their Goldwater moment with a recalcitrant Trump and make it clear that, whether he likes it or not, his time as president is drawing to a close.
George W. Bush, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and Chris Christie — we’re looking at you.