One of the more insidious things about President Trump is the way he acts as a kind of gravitational distortion in our political-moral space. His combination of self-serving unscrupulousness and weaponized charisma adds ethical weight to the decisions of more ordinary politicians and pundits. Political calculations that in normal times would have been routine and inconsequential become no longer so, and courage is required to do what is right rather than acquiesce in what is wrong.
Consider the common practice of speaking in ambiguous evasions. Almost every politician does it, and usually it’s harmless enough. (Voter A: “Raise taxes!” Voter B: “Lower taxes!” Politician: “Everyone should pay a fair share!”) But when the topic being evaded is Trump’s effort to steal an election by lying that the election was stolen, evasion is harmless no more.
Campaigning on Friday in Georgia for Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who face run-off elections against their Democratic opponents, Vice President Pence had this to say: “As our election contests continue, here in Georgia and in courts across the country, I’ll make you [a] promise. We’re going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted. We’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out.”
The statement carefully avoids repeating or endorsing Trump’s lies. In the abstract, the basic idea is unobjectionable — who could oppose counting legal votes and throwing out illegal ones?
But it happens that Trump lost the election and yet continues to claim that he won it. It happens that half of Republicans falsely believe that Trump “rightfully won.” Pence’s remark was obviously calculated to let them keep believing that, and to advance his electoral goal thereby.
So, of course, was Perdue and Loeffler’s statement earlier in the week calling on Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to resign, for “fail[ing] to deliver honest and transparent elections.” They didn’t bother to explain how he’d done that. They made their statement before 5,400 or so uncounted ballots had turned up in two Georgia counties. (The ballots had gone uncounted because of human error by lower officials, not because of some conspiracy; the ballots, once counted, did not come close to reversing Biden’s five-digit victory in the state; and the county clerk in one instance has already been fired. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board gives details.) Maybe they were referring to Georgia’s primary elections earlier this year, which were marred by long lines and voting-machine problems (Raffensperger pointed the finger at county officials). At best, Perdue and Loeffler were just (“just”) cagey about Trump’s lies in the same way that Pence was. At worst, they also maligned a public servant unjustly.
The Republican defense of such evasions, to the extent there can be one, is that control of the U.S. Senate is at stake and a Republican majority is needed to stop Biden’s legislative agenda.
For my part, I believe that the integrity of our system and our institutions, and hence the anathematization of Trumpian lies aimed at reversing the election, should be lexically prioritized over policy disputes, however important those disputes may be. By this I mean that, just as every word starting with “a” appears in the dictionary before every word starting with “b,” every threat to our system and institutions — such as the threat Trump now poses — should be considered a graver matter than every concern about policy. In terms of loyalty: Nation over faction. In terms of consequences: You can reverse policies more easily than you can repair damage to our practice of republican democracy itself, and that damage will tend to be farther-reaching than bad policies.
I would find it almost impossible to vote for a candidate who endorsed some of the policies that Georgia’s Democratic Senate candidates do. I would find it simply impossible to vote for a candidate who facilitated Trump’s efforts to delegitimize and steal an election. Whether by assertion or evasion, the effect is the same.
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