Donald Trump State of the Union 2019
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed.” So says the protagonist of Waiting for Godot. I’ve been thinking about that line a lot lately. Republicans’ quivering before President Donald Trump, after all, evokes Samuel Beckett’s iconic play in which two characters wait on the arrival of an eternal no-show. As they wait, they argue about and ruminate on the most existential of questions, like whether there is any point to their existence, until they decide to hang themselves. They looked to Godot for salvation, but he never arrived.

This is part of the problem with today’s Republican Party. Its lawmakers are either enthralled to Trump out of naked fear, or they are waiting for a savior to free them from their servitude to a madman. In the process, they’ve utterly lost their way, and are now unanchored in any coherent ideology. Instead, they are hell-bent on self-destruction.

So, who is their Godot? When will he arrive? Who will come to deliver them from the fury of the Orange One?

Mitt Romney sorta, kinda tried to step into Godot’s shoes, but for some reason, he just doesn’t take. The Utah senator’s recent criticism of the president’s Syria policy and Ukrainegate was not picked up in a major way by his GOP Senate colleagues. Trump responded by calling Romney a “fool.” The one-time GOP presidential nominee seems to realize he is talking into the wind. “I don’t believe I’m leading a wing of the party,” he readily admitted. “Because there’s no wing that’s very large that is aligned with me.”

Apart from Romney, senators John Cornyn and Rob Portman only meekly called into question Trump’s pressuring of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. On the House side, Francis Rooney  declared that he was open-minded on impeachment. The next day, he announced his retirement.

As conservative columnist George Will has noted, “Aside from some rhetorical bleats, Republicans are acquiescing as Trump makes foreign policy by and for his viscera.” Perhaps relying on his own viscera, former Arizona senator Jeff Flake claimed that at least 35 GOP senators would vote to convict Trump on a secret ballot—so fearful are they of openly taking a moral stand. But democracy isn’t about clandestine legislative voting. Again, not a Godot among them.

There’s much speculation on which GOP senators might eventually find the fortitude to break with Trump—names like Lisa Murkowski, Lamar Alexander, Mike Lee, Jerry Moran, Susan Collins, and Ben Sasse come up often. But so far, nary a peep among them. Perhaps they, too, have their eyes trained on the horizon for a Godot in shining armor atop a white steed. But as we wait on their waiting, our democracy crumbles.

The rest of the GOP Senate caucus pretty much fall into two categories: the true believers and the meretricious. Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson made a display of being in the former with his recent televised pro-Trump tirade in which he said he didn’t trust the CIA and the FBI. Notwithstanding his outspoken criticism of Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds, Lindsey Graham is the hands-down leader of the latter group. He has even confessed that what drives him into MAGA-land is his yearning “to try to be relevant.” History has shown that great figures didn’t become great through fixating on relevance, but rather by taking principled stands in the face of powerful headwinds.

Indeed, the last political reign of terror in this country, McCarthyism, saw more spine among Republicans. Senator Margaret Chase Smith obliquely attacked Senator Joseph McCarthy early on with her 1950 “Declaration of Conscience” speech: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry, smear.” Six fellow Republicans echoed her criticism. In 1954, Vermont Republican Senator Ralph Flanders, comparing McCarthy to Adolf Hitler, introduced a resolution to censure him. It didn’t pass, but later that year, the full Senate voted 67-22  to condemn McCarthy—with Democrats voting unanimously in favor, and Republicans evenly split.

But it took another Republican, Joseph N. Welch, to finally burst the McCarthy bubble. The United States Army’s chief legal counsel at the time, Welch famously challenged the Wisconsin lawmaker during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

It was one of the first televised congressional hearings. The country was gripped by Welch’s performance. Pioneer TV journalist Edward R. Murrow further unraveled the fraud that was Joseph McCarthy in his popular show, See It Now. “The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies,” Murrow told millions of viewers. Sound familiar?

A former Democratic legislative aide recently told me, “The real issue is whether and when something so outrageous happens that a tipping point will be reached—with congressional Republicans finally joining the choir.”

We may now be nearing that point: more than half of Americans now believe Trump should be both impeached and removed from office. This shift in public opinion comes just under a month since the Ukraine whistleblower surfaced, and three weeks after the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry. By comparison, the Watergate scandal took more than two years to unfold and public support for impeachment did not pass the 50 percent mark until days before Nixon resigned.

On August 7, 1974, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes, Republican leaders in the Senate and House, respectively, and Barry Goldwater broke the news to Nixon: there were enough votes in the Senate to convict him. Nixon resigned two days later.

Yet today, there is no sign that anyone will fill the shoes of those courageous Republicans. Instead, all we hear are echoes of Beckett, as Trump-era Republicans remain profiles in cowardice. Each day they fail to take a stand against Trump is another day’s damage inflicted on our democracy.

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Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.