Opinion | Republicans of conscience have one last chance to retain their honor

Or do they? As Trump works harder than ever to create violence, division and hatred in his final attempt to stave off defeat, there may be a way for Republicans to retain one small bit of honor in this most perilous time. It won’t be particularly satisfying, but it will be better than nothing.

First let’s look at a passage from an interview Trump did on Monday with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. Try to read this without thinking the 25th Amendment should have been invoked long ago:

Ingraham: Who do you think is pulling Biden’s strings? Is it former Obama officials?

Trump: People that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows. People that—

Igraham: What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory. Dark shadows, what is that?

Trump: No. People that you haven’t heard of. They’re people that are on the streets. They’re people that are controlling the streets. We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that. They’re on a plane.

Ingraham: Where — where was this?

Trump: I’ll tell you sometime, but it’s under investigation right now, but they came from a certain city, and this person was coming to the Republican National Convention, and there were like seven people on the plane like this person, and then a lot of people were on the plane to do big damage.

Asked to clarify by reporters on Tuesday, Trump improvised a pathetically obvious lie, saying “a person” who was on the mythical plane ride “from Washington to wherever” told him about this occurrence, in which “the entire plane filled up with the looters, the anarchists, the rioters, people that obviously were looking for trouble.”

Where does this fantasy come from? Ben Collins of NBC News tracked down the provenance of the story of the plane full of antifa thugs: It started as a Facebook post from a man in Idaho on June 1 warning that “At least a dozen males got off the plane in Boise from Seattle, dressed head to toe in black.” Which of course didn’t happen.

This story altered and spread during the early summer as paranoid conservatives stirred each other up on Facebook with rumors that busloads or planeloads of antifa fighters were coming to lay waste to their small towns. In some places, people grabbed guns and gathered to repel invasions that never came, just as the “big damage” Trump’s imaginary antifa strike team brought to the Republican convention didn’t happen.

The problem is not just that with all the resources of the U.S. government at his disposal, the president’s view of the world is that of your uncle who in the early stages of dementia spends his days reading obscure conspiracy websites. The problem is that he is spreading these bonkers conspiracy theories while encouraging and justifying violence and vigilantism.

There are many Washington Republicans who find this abhorrent. But they feel they can’t speak up, for two main reasons. First, they’re afraid. Most Republicans in Congress represent conservative districts or states where Trump remains popular, so to stand up and say, “Enough. He’s a danger to everything this country is supposed to represent” would end their careers.

Second, because they believe in conservatism, they genuinely think — or at least hope — that on balance it would be better to have a second Trump term than to have Democrats in charge pursuing liberal policies.

It would be wonderful if every Republican endorsed Joe Biden in the way that John Kasich, Jeff Flake and other former elected officials have — not because they’ve become liberals but because they’ve decided that their party has to purge itself of Trump and Trumpism, even if it means a Democrat gets to be president for a while.

But the key word there is “former.” Because they don’t have to worry about a backlash from their constituents or run in a Republican primary to keep their jobs, they’re no longer worried about self-preservation and can take a longer view of the interests of their party.

And what about those who would rather not see Biden elected, but still find Trump abhorrent? There’s a model for what they can do.

In October of 2016, when the “Access Hollywood” tape became public and the country heard Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, many Republicans were disgusted enough to take some tentative action. Some withdrew their endorsements of Trump, while others — most notably House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — simply decided to no longer campaign with him or advocate on his behalf.

They weren’t going to tell people to vote for Hillary Clinton, but they wouldn’t tell them to vote for Trump either. “I am not going to defend Donald Trump,” Ryan told House Republicans. “Not now, not in the future.”

Was it a profile in courage? Hardly. And Ryan wound up defending Trump plenty after he became president, as did many of the other Republicans who backed away from him in October.

But at least they can say that for a moment, they retained a functioning conscience. Right now, with the visible exception of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, there are no Republicans in Congress who have declared that they won’t support Trump this year. (Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a genuine moderate, is the other major elected Republican who has said he won’t be voting for Trump.)

Nobody is expecting Republicans to back Biden, even if that’s the only truly defensible action right now. But at the very least, they should find the integrity not to stand behind a president they know is such a moral and practical disaster. History will not be kind to them either way; they’ve enabled him, justified him and apologized for him for far too long. But they have one last chance to say that they mustered the strength to avoid helping him any more than they already have.

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