What threshold must Trump cross? When do rationalizations run dry?
In the 80’s film The Big Chill, a rather shallow character, “Michael” (played by Jeff Goldblum) perplexes his co-star Tom Berenger in an argument they’re having over the universality — and critical importance — of rationalizations.
Michael: “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”
Sam: “Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.”
Michael: “Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?”
Berenger’s facial expression reflects total confusion at the end of the exchange. And for good reason. Every single one of us makes rationalizations. Every day, in ways conscious and unconscious.
Stretch all of those days into a life and you’re looking back upon tens of thousands of decisions. And nearly all of them are to some degree cost-benefit analyses. From choosing a college to choosing a partner to choosing whether or not to order dessert. Oh so often, we rationalize these decisions. We make arguments to ourselves to feel more comfortable with our choices. Goldblum is basically explaining that this is human nature.
Part of why politicians’ jobs can be so difficult — and ripe for criticism — is because so many of their decisions are public and have impact on our lives. And because so many of these public decisions are controversial, we scrutinize their processes. What are they basing their conclusions upon? Do they have a solid rationale? Sometimes we arrive at the likelihood that dwelling at the bottom of our elected officials’ decisions are massive rationalizations. They are human. This is politics.
During last year’s campaign, why did Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a man who spent six years in a North Vietnamese prison, cozy up to a man who had never served his country in the military yet publicly mocked McCain’s capture? It is likely that McCain was disgusted by this man, but needed Trump’s supporters in his own reelection. Politicians are fond of quoting the adage: “A leader with no followers is just a man taking a walk.” McCain won his primary and got reelected, and he has been somewhat of a check on the President’s highly questionable behavior thus far. Where many Democrats were critical of McCain’s go-along strategy in 2016, they’re now glad he’s still in the Senate. Sometimes rationalizing the costs and suffering through awful compromises can have real benefits.
Many other Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have similarly weighed the costs and benefits of sticking with a President whom they’ve both voiced disapproval of early in his term. But their common rationalization to stand by Trump in 2017-18 might be even easier than the deal that McCain — and dozens of other Republican incumbents — cut with themselves during the campaign. The rationalization since January 21st has been that for the first time in 10 years, the GOP controls both chambers of Congress and the White House. Ostensibly, this is what their entire political careers have been about: Obtaining the power to pass conservative solutions into law. Putting their legislative stamp on the country.
Carl Bernstein, who broke Watergate with Bob Woodward, has often said that the real heroes in bringing down Richard M. Nixon were the Republicans on the Hill who finally drew the line. Regarding our current President, many Americans have been asking the question: when will enough be enough for GOP leaders? When will they stand up and do something? Thirty days after Trump’s inauguration, longtime conservative and editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, tweeted these words:
“Honest Q for conservatives who aren’t just working with or around Trump, but rationalizing him: In your heart, don’t you know you’re wrong?”
Anti-Trumpers cheer this kind of admonishment. But for 293 Republicans in the House and the Senate, reelection is always a consideration; even before they were sworn into their new terms in January. They’re watching Trump’s polling numbers in their districts and states. They’re rationalizing their decisions to mostly keep mum, because they want to pass legislation and win reelection.
Which leaves us with the ultimate question: Is there any ethical violation or dangerous mistake this President could make that would puff up the spines of his Republican allies in Congress? Is there a line to actually cross? Is it “high crimes and misdemeanors?” Could President Trump’s latest alleged breach of national security by sharing classified intelligence with the Russians constitute the threshold?
The morning after Russia story broke, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius intoned on MSNBC: “These are the secrets that keep us alive.” Less than 12 hours later Trump was alleged to have obstructed justice in a conversation with James Comey.
Can the words and actions of this President still be rationalized? How much slack does he still have? Until he or his associates face indictments? Until the mid-terms? Regarding the Russia incident, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) remarked that the White House is “in a downward spiral.” Will the GOP continue rationalizing until Trump — and possibly our country — slam down into the dirt?