The Retreat of the Decent Opposition

Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party’s legislative arm is largely complete (except for Senate leadership, which remains firmly under the control of uber-survivor Mitch McConnell). While all political parties experience cyclical realignments as new party leaders emerge and their bases change, the drastic ideological and temperamental shift of those Republicans serving in Congress is truly something to behold as it signifies the replacement of earnest and occasionally agreeable conservatives with their petulant nativist successors.

The consequence of this shift, driven by the upcoming retirements of those principled conservatives, is that there is no longer a powerful group of serious Republican lawmakers able and willing to push back on the childishness of the president and his lackeys in Congress on the policy issues of the day. These conservatives, while often opposed to many humanistic positions, at least openly embraced diversity, integrity, and a political decorum that encouraged respectful discourse (even if such discourse was rarely present). But as these Republicans announced their retirements, they abdicated their roles as internal checks on Trump’s excesses. In effect, the days of the decent opposition to Trump’s indecent agenda are effectively done.

Take, for example, the impending departure of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), a hardcore conservative and budget hawk. Corker has served for years as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an extremely important post that both helps decide US foreign policy and provides important oversight of the executive branch agencies tasked with carrying out foreign policy decisions. Corker has not only been an important check on some of the more outlandish things Trump proposed on the foreign policy stage, he’s actively worked to defend the federal agencies Trump dislikes and has worked to weaken. But Corker is now retiring at the end of this session, and his likely successor, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), is a member of the nativist wing who supported a birther bill in the wake of questions about President Obama’s country of origin.

Another departure is that of Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who has criticized the president on a variety of issues, from immigration to foreign policy, and even made a speech on the floor opposing some of the President’s more destructive actions and negative personality traits. The person who could replace this internal check on Trump is Kelli Ward, a Trumper endorsed by numerous fake news websites.

And of course, with Speaker Paul Ryan announcing his intention to retire after this session of Congress, the retreat of the congressional Republican opposition is largely complete. Ryan, who initially criticized Trump and said his members didn’t have to endorse the him in the election, ended up working closely with President Trump and was less of a roadblock to Trump’s excesses than expected. But Ryan at the very least didn’t endorse Trump’s most insulting statements, something his successor could very well end up doing (especially since that successor is likely Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who will need Trump’s endorsement to win over the more extreme factions of the House Republican caucus to become speaker and will therefore be indebted to Trump).

Randian conservatives like Ryan and budget hawks like Corker may not be the most popular people among the humanist community, but we should recognize that their well-meaning conservatism is an entirely different beast than the philosophically and ideologically amorphous nationalism expressed by their successors. We should recognize that while people like Paul Ryan may have had radically different priorities than humanists, he at least paid the appropriate lip service to respectful discourse and inclusive American values, and would at least occasionally pull the current president back from the brink. What the Republican Party will look like without these figures should be a concerning thought not only to humanists, but to all Americans.