In a controversial Aug. 12 press conference, President Donald J. Trump equated Black Lives Matter and Antifa to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Trump’s comments were ignorant, divisive and senseless; he is irreversibly beyond the pale at this point. I had hoped that our leaders in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were not beyond hope despite their behavior for the past eight months. I stand corrected.
Ryan’s and McConnell’s partial acquiescence to Trump, though unfortunate, was expected. The Republican party somehow managed to converge around the demagogue; politicians’ approval ratings within their own party are contingent on their support for the leader of that party. On the other hand, these leaders’ total acquiescence to Trump — especially that of Ryan — is shocking, hitting a new low after their total failure to adequately denounce Trump or even his comments following that notorious press conference.
It seemed like Ryan had no intention of commenting on Trump’s conference; Ryan had to be asked by a constituent at a town hall to make a remark. The sum total of Ryan’s rebuke was saying that the president “messed up,” but that upbraiding the president would be “counterproductive.” If equating liberal actors with white supremacists isn’t appropriate call for censure, then I don’t know what is.
McConnell, on the other hand, acted without being asked, but issued an even weaker statement accompanied by a tweet, both on Aug. 12, neither addressing Trump directly. The totality of McConnell’s statements amounted to a generic condemnation of the “right-wing” groups in Charlottesville, Va., and a tweet that said, “the hate and bigotry witnessed in #Charlottesville does not reflect American values. I wholeheartedly oppose their actions.” The best our Senate Majority Leader could do to combat our president’s overt indulgence of the alt-right was to subtweet him.
McConnell’s and Ryan’s responses are unacceptable. They are two of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. When the premier member of a party openly defends groups under the tutelage of David Duke and Richard Spencer, the moral imperative to denounce him runs far deeper than superficial party lines or partisan politics. Trump’s statements were not small missteps; he didn’t “mess up.” He grossly and openly abused the moral authority that comes with his job. Back in summer 2016, Ryan criticized Trump’s comments on the ethnicity of judges in immigration courts, calling Trump’s remarks “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” A more lethal critique of Trump by his own party’s leadership scarcely comes to mind. The latest of Trump’s comments on his tour de force of ignorance make Trump’s statements regarding the judges seem all but innocuous.
Now that Trump has assumed office, Ryan and McConnell seem paralyzed. If they have any spine or moral compass remaining in their bodies, I can’t find it. Perhaps Ryan and McConnell are not solely to blame. Perhaps they are bound by their constituencies from expressing their chagrin with Trump’s leadership. But a house divided cannot stand, and neither can a democracy perpetually embattled in partisan vitriol. The last thing we need is more maliciousness. We need a political regime wherein sharp criticism of the president’s regressive actions from members of his own party is not only tolerated by those leaders’ constituents, but also encouraged as a part of the political process.
That change will never happen from the bottom up. The onus rests with Ryan and McConnell to denounce the president when he errs, and to accept any disapproval lodged in their direction as a result of their independence, incisiveness and precise moral compass. They work for the people. If two of the most powerful men serving in our government don’t have enough courage to stand up to the capricious malefactor we have elected — potentially at the cost of their political careers — then they aren’t fit to lead our country.
Grant Osborn is a College junior from Springfield, Ohio.