The Psychopath and the Sycophants
Until recently, I counted Georgia governor Brian Kemp among the country’s most contemptible Republicans. As a native Georgian, I was horrified by the brazen 2018 campaign ad in which he promised to round up ‘criminal illegals’ in his pickup truck, and the blatant conflict of interest as he continued to serve as secretary of state (election overseer) while aspiring to gubernatorial office. His early kinship with Donald Trump, and his decision to defy guidance from the CDC (incidentally headquartered just minutes from the governor’s mansion) and reopen many businesses in late April, didn’t help. (Though to be fair, the surge in COVID cases breathlessly expected by the tsk-tsking media never materialized.)
But when Governor Kemp found himself in Trump’s doghouse after failing to deliver Georgia’s electoral votes, he didn’t roll over. Instead, he and the other Georgia Republicans responsible for managing the election stood up to Trump’s bashing and bullying with resolve. (Of course, this was some complicated political calculus—siding with Trump would have essentially meant implicating themselves in allowing voter fraud.)
Fascinated by this turn of events, and seeing light at the end of Trump’s turbulent term in office, I decided to look back and rank the backbones of some top elected Republicans. From former foes turned flunkeys to steadfast defenders of conservative principles, the GOP has them all…
The ride-or-die invertebrates
Gold: Mike Pence
No one has compromised his morals more than the man who has stood by Trump’s side since accepting the role of running mate. An evangelical Christian with unimpeachable conservative chops, Pence willingly embraced a double-divorcé with a penchant for womanizing, vulgarity, and vicious slurs. Even after the Access Hollywood tape vividly unveiled the depravity of the man he had tethered himself to, Pence accepted Trump’s transparently disingenuous apology. Since winning in 2016, Pence has served faithfully as Trump’s lapdog — despite once claiming renowned éminence grise Dick Cheney as his vice presidential role model. Only now, in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, is Pence backing away from the trainwreck.
Silver: Rudy Giuliani
Once called ‘America’s Mayor’ and named Time Magazine Person of the Year for his handling of the September 11 attacks, Giuliani governed deep blue New York City for eight years as a pro-choice moderate. Yet after his failed presidential run, he grabbed the coattails of his fellow outer-borough boy to take on common rival Hillary Clinton. Now Trump’s most loyal legal counsel, Giuliani has soiled his legacy and become a national laughingstock, filing frivolous lawsuits in support of Trump’s fraudulent claims of election fraud and going on a gaffe bender that launched a thousand memes.
The opportunist snakes
Gold: Ted Cruz
No narrative arc on this list is more pitiful that Ted Cruz, who is living proof that political ambition too often supersedes moral principle. A distant second to Trump in the 2016 primaries, Cruz bore the brunt of more Trump bile than any other non-Democrat. From attacks on his wife’s appearance, to insinuations about his father’s involvement in the JFK assassination, to the ‘Lyin’ Ted’ moniker that helped sink his campaign, Cruz crumbled under Trump’s cruel, personal attacks. But shockingly, mere months after calling Trump a “pathological liar” and “utterly amoral,” Cruz pivoted to become a Trump booster. Now that Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results enter their most desperate days Cruz has gone all in, leading a group of Republicans refusing to certify the election results without a 10-day audit of the election results.
Silver: Lindsay Graham
The man who once said the GOP should have kicked Trump out of the party has since become one of the president’s most ardent apologists. Having dismissed Trump’s conservative credentials and endorsed Ted Cruz’s primary campaign, Graham now embraces Trump’s brand of populism as critical to the party’s success. Though they clashed briefly when Graham criticized Trump’s comments after the death of a counter-protester at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the two men are now thick as thieves. As Trump refuses to concede his reelection loss, Graham is spending his senatorial hours seeking an audience with election officials in several states that Trump lost, hoping to overturn the results.
Honorable mention: Marco Rubio
An early adopter of the #NeverTrump hashtag in February 2016, Rubio led a coalition determined to thwart Trump’s ascent. (Spoiler: they failed.) But since withdrawing from the race just a month later, Rubio edged ever closer into Trump’s inner orbit. He endorsed him at the RNC and stood by him after the Access Hollywood tape. But being one of the first Republican senators to call Biden ‘President Elect’ puts him a notch below (above?) Graham and Cruz.
The (not-quite never) Never Trumpers
Bronze: The Bush Family
If you’d told me in 2003 I’d be admiring George W. Bush, I’d have been shocked. Well, times change. As the last Republicans to occupy the White House before Trump moved in, Georges Sr. and Jr. were the figureheads of establishment conservatism. But Trump refused to kowtow to the first family of the GOP, and his attacks on early frontrunner Jeb in the 2016 primary swiftly snuffed out the final flame of the Bush dynasty. Appalled by Trump’s mudslinging, both Bushes declined to endorse Trump in 2016, and HW even publicly avowed support for Hillary.
Silver: John McCain
Serving as the dignified counterpoint to Trump’s malfunctional moral compass, McCain withdrew his already-tenuous endorsement of Trump within days of the Access Hollywood tape. A year prior McCain had somehow swallowed Trump’s disgraceful and absurd derision of McCain’s war hero status, but Trump’s disrespect for women was a bridge too far. McCain was a thorn in Trump’s side until he died in 2018, most significantly by forwarding the Steele dossier (linking Trump’s campaign to Russia) to the FBI and furnishing the vote that tanked Republican attempts to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act. A maverick to the end, McCain’s spirit may have helped deliver Arizona to the Dems in 2020, and even in death continues to attract Trumpian vitriol.
Gold: Mitt Romney
The second Republican presidential nominee who proves that in politics everything is relative and perspective is everything, Romney is the Boomer version of the Silent Generation’s McCain. Romney delivered a scathing dressing down of Trump in early 2016, deriding him (and his namesake ‘university’) as a phony and a fraud, deploring his racist remarks, and declaring him unfit for office. And in 2020, when it should have been easy for any American politician of any stripe to decry Trump’s assault on democracy, Romney remained one of the few prominent Republicans willing to do so. Yet due to his acceptance of Trump’s endorsement during his 2012 campaign, Romney’s Never Trumper status must have an asterisk.
The Republicans above have all made compromises, morally or politically, to take their chosen positions. Whether to shape their legacy or stake out claims to future power, they have placed their bets on Trumpism one way or another. One can only guess if the party is over–or just getting started.