It’s time for Re­pub­li­can ver­te­brates

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - michael­ger­son@wash­post.com MICHAEL GERSON

In the midst of a gov­ern­ing cri­sis, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (RWis.) has once again risen to his role as the voice of bland com­pla­cency. Con­cern­ing the open war­fare between Pres­i­dent Trump and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ryan ad­vises “th­ese two gen­tle­men to sit down and just talk through their is­sues.”

But what are Corker’s “is­sues”? He has as­serted that Trump re­quires con­stant han­dling to con­trol his volatil­ity: “I know for a fact that ev­ery sin­gle day at the White House, it’s a sit­u­a­tion of try­ing to con­tain him.” Corker has ac­cused Trump of lack­ing strate­gic think­ing: “A lot of peo­ple think that there is some kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ act un­der­way, but that’s just not true.” Corker has called out Trump’s rou­tine de­cep­tions: “I don’t know why the pres­i­dent tweets out things that are not true.” Corker has talked of Trump’s vacu­ity: He acts “like he’s do­ing ‘ The Ap­pren­tice’ or some­thing.” Corker, who chairs the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, has ex­pressed the fear that Trump’s in­sta­bil­ity could lead to con­flict: “We could be headed to­ward World War III with the kind of com­ments that he’s mak­ing.”

So how does Ryan imag­ine a Corker/ Trump con­ver­sa­tion might un­fold? Over din­ner, Corker ac­cuses the pres­i­dent of be­ing a chaotic, di­rec­tion­less, shal­low liar who could start a nu­clear war. Trump passes the peas and at­tacks Corker for be­ing short. This is, af­ter all, the way gen­tle­men re­solve their dif­fer­ences.

GOP de­nial about Trump has gen­er­ally taken Ryan’s form. The pres­i­dent may be ec­cen­tric and di­vi­sive, but Repub­li­cans need to keep their heads down and think of tax re­form. This as­sumes that the main chal­lenge is to avoid dis­trac­tion from es­sen­tial tasks.

But the real prob­lem has al­ways been Trump’s fun­da­men­tal un­fit­ness for high of­fice. It is not Trump’s in­dis­ci­pline and lack of lead­er­ship, which make car­ry­ing a leg­isla­tive agenda for­ward nearly im­pos­si­ble. It is not his vul­gar­ity and small­ness, which have been the equiv­a­lent of spray­paint­ing graf­fiti on the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment. It is not his nearly com­plete ig­no­rance of pol­icy and his­tory, which con­demns him to live in the eter­nal present of his own im­me­di­ate de­sires.

No, Corker has given pub­lic per­mis­sion to raise the most se­ri­ous ques­tions: Is Trump psy­cho­log­i­cally and mo­rally equipped to be pres­i­dent? And could his un­fit­ness cause per­ma­nent dam­age to the coun­try?

It is no longer pos­si­ble to safely ig­nore the leaked cries for help com­ing from within the ad­min­is­tra­tion. They re­veal a pres­i­dent rag­ing against en­e­mies, ob­sessed by slights, deeply un­in­formed and in­cu­ri­ous, un­able to fo­cus, and sub­ject to de­struc­tive whims. A main task of the chief of staff seems to be to shield him from din­ner guests and tele­phone calls that might set him off on a fool­ish or dan­ger­ous tan­gent. Much of the White House se­nior staff seems bound, not by loy­alty to the pres­i­dent, but by a duty to pro­tect the na­tion from the pres­i­dent. Trump, in turn, is re­ported to have said: “I hate ev­ery­one in the White House.” And also, pre­sum­ably, in the State Depart­ment, headed by a sec­re­tary of state who ap­par­ently re­gards his boss as a “mo­ron.”

It was once urged, “Let Rea­gan be Rea­gan.” Who, be­sides the oleagi­nous Sean Han­nity, would say, “Let Trump be Trump”? The se­cu­rity of our coun­try — and po­ten­tially the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple abroad — de­pends on Trump be­ing some­one else en­tirely. It de­pends on the pres­i­dent be­ing some wise, strate­gic, re­strained leader he has never been.

The time for whis­pered crit­i­cisms and quiet snick­er­ing is over. The time for panic and de­ci­sion is upon us. The thin line of sane, re­spon­si­ble ad­vis­ers at the White House — such as Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son — could break at any mo­ment. Al­ready, Trump’s protests of eter­nal love for Kelly are a bad sign for the gen­eral’s fu­ture. The Amer­i­can govern­ment now has a dan­ger­ous fragility at its very cen­ter. Its wel­fare is as thin as an eggshell — per­haps as thin as Don­ald Trump’s skin.

Any elected Re­pub­li­can who shares Corker’s con­cerns has a po­lit­i­cal and moral duty to state them in pub­lic. If Corker is cor­rect, many of his col­leagues do have such fears. Their si­lence is deaf­en­ing and damn­ing.

“Brave men are all ver­te­brates,” said G.K. Ch­ester­ton. “They have their soft­ness on the sur­face and their tough­ness in the mid­dle. But th­ese mod­ern cow­ards are all crus­taceans; their hard­ness is all on the cover, and their soft­ness is in­side.”

More than any­thing else at this mo­ment, the na­tion has need of Re­pub­li­can ver­te­brates.

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