Republican members of Congress love to cite President Obama’s unenforced “red line” over chemical weapons use in Syria as the moment the world went to hell. They argue that the non-reaction to the discovery of mustard gas led to Bashar Al-Assad committing further atrocities, to Vladimir Putin seizing Crimea and meddling in Eastern European political processes, and to Saudi Arabia and Iran carrying out a proxy war in Yemen.
As with all geo-political messes, its hard to nail down causation, but it certainly isn’t out of the question that the United States’ hesitancy to act after threatening to may have incentivized further international transgressions. For Republicans, the lesson to be learned is closer to home than they may think.
Just as Vladimir Putin may have viewed US inaction in Syria as an invitation to push further into Ukraine, President-elect Donald Trump has viewed Republican cowardice as a green light continue to bypass norms, rules, and common decency. He has seen more red line inaction than a Metro rider during rush hour.
Barely a month after declaring his run for president, Trump insulted former POW John McCain and declared that he liked people “who weren’t captured.” Republican leaders were aghast in incredulity for about 72 hours. Trump continued on.
In December, 2015, Trump called for a blanket ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and others said he was tearing at the moral fabric of the United States and making Betsy Ross roll over in her grave. Trump rolled on.
In July, 2016, Khizr Khan stood before the country on national tv, shared his grief like only a son-less father could with the world, and asked if Donald Trump would have represented his son, a muslim American soldier, as he would any other young man. Trump responded by insulting Khan’s wife and their faith. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell sided with Khan. Trump marched on.
In October, 2016, a video surfaced of a 59 year-old Trump insinuating that he had committed sexual assault. Mike Pence cancelled his upcoming campaign schedule and many Republicans fantasized about a new ticket. Trump called it locker it room talk and Republicans slinked back. Trump soldiered on.
After each of these events, a small chorus of Republican leaders stuck their necks out and proclaimed Trump’s actions to be wrong. He was called unacceptable, unpresidential, and unfit. But each time, as the news cycle returned to Hillary Clinton’s emails, those Republican leaders crawled back on board the Trump train.
The red line has been drawn and erased, re-drawn and re-erased. It is as durable a sand castle during high tide.
During the campaign the consequences to this cowardice were minimal. The news cycle moved quicker than a strobe light at an Avicii concert and real accountability was on par with a time-out session at an elementary school slumber party.
But now that Trump is about to become president and will have the awesome power of his signature, the consequences could be catastrophic. The daily unintelligent briefing that he shares with us via Twitter shows his willingness to train his ire on the press and political opponents, two groups that are supposed to be protected by our founding documents.
What happens when Trump calls for an investigation of a paper that reports on a scandal of his? Will Republican leaders stand up then?
What happens when Trump asks Attorney General Sessions to investigate Democratic governors or to ignore illegal voting restrictions? Will Republican leaders step forward in defense?
Republicans have made hay out of President Obama’s refusal to enforce an international threat and lamented the chaos that became of it. After nearly 18 months of standing up to Donald Trump, only to sit back down, they would be wise to adopt their own lesson.