If you're a Republican, the last two years have asked a lot of you. First you were given an extraordinarily difficult choice: Support Donald Trump, or turn your back on your party. And now, Trump himself is demanding something even more distasteful. If you support him, you must not merely hold your nose and say "The alternative is worse." You must accept an increasingly rancid collection of ideas, ones that require you not only to abandon any commitment at all to honesty but to cast aside much of your dwindling stock of moral values.
Let's remind ourselves of the bargain so many Republicans made back in 2016. While Trump's avid supporters made up at least a plurality of the party during the primaries, once he became the nominee, many analysts thought that he'd be unable to bring the rest of the party to him and command the kind of loyalty that had come to mark our polarized age. With some high-profile figures like Bill Kristol mounting the "Never Trump" barricades, it seemed as though the population of Republicans who couldn't accept him would be large and influential.
Their reasons, furthermore, shifted over time. At first it was his ideological unreliability that was at issue. Unlike other politicians, he arrived without a set of commitments to conservative ideas and Republican coalition partners. On occasion he'd make shockingly transgressive statements, like saying he didn't want to cut entitlement programs. He obviously couldn't be trusted.
Then as the campaign proceeded, the utter repugnance of his moral character weighed heavier on their minds. Even if he pledged to enact a conservative agenda, could they in good conscience vote for someone who seemed in possession of not a single human virtue, to the point where he was on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity?
For a few, the answer was no. But for most, the alternative was just too horrific to contemplate. Opposing Trump meant supporting Hillary Clinton, the woman they had spent a quarter century convincing themselves to loathe with a passionate fire they bestowed on almost nothing else. That they could not do.
So they'd put up with his coarseness, they'd put up with his personal corruption, they'd put put up with his naked racism, they'd put up with his ignorance and stupidity and capriciousness. Just sign the bills and appoint the judges, and it would be worth it. A moral compromise to be sure, but one they could live with.
And they all did it. According to exit polls, nine out of ten Republicans voted for Trump, just as many as had voted for Mitt Romney or John McCain.
Judge them for what they assented to—and you should—but it was a rational choice to make.
But once he took office, Trump was not done asking his supporters to debase themselves on his behalf. He was just getting started. In Trump's world, there is no "I disagree with him on this but not on that." He's going to demand that you sign on to it all — not just the policies, or his malignant narcissism, but the entire project of Trumpism.
And at the core of Trumpism is the idea that truth is whatever idiotic whim Trump has at a given moment, and it might be different in an hour or a day. To support Trump is to accept that, and also to accept his assault on any American institution that might hold him accountable, whether it's the press, the courts, the FBI, or a lifelong Republican prosecutor with an impeccable reputation charged by Trump's own Justice Department with determining how a foreign power manipulated our election system.
And guess what: Republicans are happily going along. As The Washington Post's Dan Balz recently pointed out, in poll after poll, the favorability of those Trump is attacking, like Robert Mueller and the FBI, has dropped like a stone among Republicans. In Mueller's case in particular, it is utterly impossible to attribute this to anything other than Trump's attacks, since Mueller never talks to the press and the only knowledge anyone has of what he's actually doing comes from the occasional indictment or the accounts of people who have been interviewed by his team.
Think about it: What do you know about how Mueller is doing his work? If you're one of the vast majority of Republicans who think he's out of control, what specific evidence you have to support that belief? The answer is that you have none, because almost none of Mueller's work has been visible to the public. There's been nothing to suggest that he has been anything but professional and methodical, as befits the reputation that made him a bipartisan choice for the job in the first place.
So all the Republicans who now believe Mueller must be stopped are concluding that for no reason other than the fact that Donald Trump told them so. And they believe that despite the fact that nearly everything Trump says about the entire investigation—like his recent assertion that the FBI planted spies in his campaign—is proven to be a lie almost immediately. His own lawyers insist that he should refuse to allow Mueller to interview him, because "we are not going to sit him down if this is a trap for perjury," as Rudy Giuliani said this weekend. But you can't fall into a perjury trap unless you're willing to commit perjury.
The remarkable thing is that everyone, including seemingly all of Trump's supporters, accept that if Trump were interviewed under oath, of course he'd perjure himself. After all, he can't get through the friendliest Fox News interview without telling a dozen lies, so how could it be otherwise?
President Trump has given Republicans much of what they wanted: a stolen Supreme Court seat, a gigantic corporate tax cut, an impossibly cruel crackdown on immigrants, a sabotage of health security, a rollback of regulations to protect the environment and workers' rights, and more. But along the way he has demanded that they abandon a commitment to any principle other than "This is what Trump wants today."
And when Mueller is done with his work and we see the full panoply of misdeeds from Trump and those around him, Republicans will be asked to keep following Trump through his own moral sewer. They'll be told to insist that there's nothing wrong with cooperating with a hostile foreign power to undermine our elections, that there's nothing wrong with incessant lying, that there's nothing wrong with using the presidency for personal profit, that whatever Trump did was right and good, because it was Trump.
Will they do it? Of course they will. With gusto.