Given the death grip in which Donald Trump has the Republican Party, it is useful to remember that during the 2016 campaign the Republican establishment was treating him as a pariah. Only four Republicans of note were willing to be seen with him regularly on the campaign trail: Chris Christy, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and Sarah Palin. An out-of-favor quartet for whom Trump represented their unlikely chance for political redemption.
Then came the victory that Trump himself had never expected. The four must have felt that their uncommon support for the president-elect would bring its just rewards. Well, not exactly. Only Giuliani reaped anything of substance from Trump, being named his personal lawyer, a decision the president has had ample cause to regret in recent days.
If Trump owes a debt of gratitude to any of these loyalists, it is to Gingrich. Newt Gingrich in the 1990s transformed the very character of the Republican Party, which transformation may enable the Trump presidency to survive, even if ignominiously.
Gingrich gaslighted his way to the Speakership of the House of Representatives by relentlessly depicting the Democrats as so inherently corrupt that they had lost their legitimacy as a political party. He later extended the umbrella of corruption to the entire federal bureaucracy, painting it as the conspiratorial “deep state.” The hucksters of hate on talk radio and Fox News have spread the gospel of Gingrich over the last quarter of a century. Unsurprisingly, it has taken deep root within the Republican constituency.
With impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House a near certainty, the fate of Donald Trump will likely depend on how unconditionally Republicans have internalized the delusional mind-set that Newt Gingrich has cultivated so assiduously. According to Gingrich, neither House Democrats nor federal bureaucrats, by their corrupt nature, have the moral standing to investigate Trump and hold him accountable.
Whether it is the demonization of Democrats and bureaucrats as illegitimate governors or the president’s lawyer dismissing any oversight of presidential behavior as unconstitutional, the end result is to put Trump above the law. Newt Gingrich himself had such a monarchical bent, best shown by his institution of a formal address by the Speaker to the House of Representatives, as though he were the Queen of England addressing Parliament. That practice had a very short life-span, but not so the deadly mind-set that Gingrich has left as his principal legacy.
No one has pushed the canard of Democratic and bureaucratic corruption as frenetically as the incomparably corrupt Donald Trump. When he bragged about his supporters standing by him even should he shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, he instinctively perceived that Republicans have been so Gingriched that they would back him, no matter what despicable thing he did, no matter how self-serving or treasonous the purpose.
Trump, in office, has had the equivalent of multiple Fifth Avenues. He has separated refugee children from their parents and locked them in cages; exonerated white supremacists; fabricated a national security crisis so that he could secure monies to build a wall to placate his xenophobic base; blatantly defied the emoluments clause; colluded with a hostile government to secure his election, then obstructed attempts to uncover that wrongdoing; secretly extorted one foreign government to smear his political opponent and publicly invited another one to do the same; created chaos in the Middle East by abandoning a crucial ally and revitalizing ISIS; increasingly displayed the erratic and inappropriate behavior of someone mentally unhinged.
It used to be that Republicans claimed implicitly that the end justifies the means, as in their fabrication of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction to justify the spreading of democracy to Iraq. Now they are stretching this moral fallacy to embrace not only means but ends that are repugnant, including the retention of a president who has overtly committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Republicans fear they can never allow Trump to go down, since his downfall would be a victory for Democrats. Republicans will excuse all his impeachable acts as the lesser of two evils. Better Donald Trump than Nancy Pelosi. Evil, for Republicans, has become totally relative since party became the measure of morality.
Not since the Civil War has any political party dared profess such a catastrophic double standard. We cannot afford a repeat of that history. Now is the time for all Republicans who proudly advertise their patriotism on their lapels to put it into action by removing Trump from the Oval Office. Looking to you, Andy Barr, Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell. Looking to you.
Robert Emmett Curran is a professor of history emeritus from Georgetown University who lives in Richmond, Ky.