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Opinion: Question for Congress, What Did You Do During the Trump Reign of Error?

History will judge lawmakers by their behavior during the Trump years

“Oh, I just went along. It seemed more convenient,” won’t appeal to the history books, Shapiro writes. (George LeVines/CQ Roll Call)
“Oh, I just went along. It seemed more convenient,” won’t appeal to the history books, Shapiro writes. (George LeVines/CQ Roll Call)

I like to imagine that the next president — regardless of party — will reassure the nation in words similar to Jerry Ford’s memorable line after Richard Nixon’s resignation: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

I do not have the temerity to predict the timetable for the transfer of power. But I have long nurtured the fantasy that on the morning of Jan. 20, 2021, Donald Trump (whose popularity will have slipped below Chris Christie levels) will be alone in the Oval Office screaming at his TV set as even “Fox & Friends” has turned against him.

Based on what we already know, the relief that Trump is out of the White House would be bipartisan.

With no establishment Republican left in the Trump inner circle, tweets like the ones over the weekend demeaning GOP senators for looking like “fools” and calling them potential “quitters” will presumably continue. Trump, with his customary mastery of detail, appeared to believe that it was a Democratic filibuster — rather than a failure to win a simple majority under reconciliation — that doomed the Senate’s latest attempt to replace Obamacare.

Republican regrets

The GOP has to be lamenting their Faustian bargain with the bilious billionaire who took over their party. Trump plays with any prominent Republican who wanders into his orbit like he is tearing the wings off flies. Or, in the case of Reince Priebus, as The Washington Post reported, the president ordered his hapless chief of staff to come to the Oval Office to swat flies.

More important than partisan regrets is what Americans will have learned from this tin-pot termagant in the White House.

Trump’s popularity with Republican voters soars far above the ozone layer, but it is questionable whether the president can defy gravity forever. Even Republican voters — raging at the media and the purported disloyalty of GOP congressional majorities — may reach their point of no return.

The hope is that the next president will have listened to and thought about John McCain’s speech last week during his brief return to the Senate before he begins treatment for brain cancer. This passage, in particular, applies to the White House as much as the Senate:

“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing, better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”

A key word in that McCain quote is “humility.” One of the symptoms of our poison-pen politics is the passionate certainty of partisans that their party embodies truth, justice and the American Way. The other party, of course, is viewed as craven, corrupt and contemptible.

Historical context

Humility should teach us that men and women of goodwill can differ over the proper rate of taxation, the role of government in health care, the best strategy to battle terrorism and the legal status of abortion. Such disagreements are healthy in a democracy. In contrast, believing that your ideological opposites are unpatriotic knaves is a symptom of the current disease.

In the past, America has recovered from wrenching events that have tested our institutions and the resiliency of our system of government.

There was talk during the Depression that America needed a dictator. In the 1960s, there was a sense that the nation’s soul was burning along with the inner cities. Misguided wars in Vietnam and Iraq tore America apart and filled the cemeteries. Watergate challenged Congress like no event since — and the pursuit of justice triumphed over naked pro-Nixon partisanship.

Trump with his willful disdain of all norms of democratic governance presents Congress with another crucial test. There is no way of legislating against Trump’s itchy Twitter finger, his mean-spirited mendacity or the sycophancy that he demands from all who work for him. And as tempting as it might be, the First Amendment prevents Congress from forbidding the president to make future embarrassing speeches to the Boy Scouts.

What Congress can do

But Congress has an opportunity in the months ahead to demonstrate that Trump neither represents the current state of American democracy nor serves as the only face of the Republican Party.

There are encouraging signs in recent weeks such as the overwhelming vote for the Russian sanctions legislation that Trump appears forced to reluctantly sign. Prominent GOP senators have warned the president that he risks a constitutional crisis if he fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions or special counsel Robert Mueller. And there are even tiny glimmers of hope that there might be a bipartisan fix for Obamacare.

But there are also areas where Congress desperately needs to assert itself. Future presidents should be legally required to make their tax returns public. Ethics laws need to be strengthened so that White House relatives like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner cannot use access to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a way to push their brands and real estate interests.

Sufficient funds have to be appropriated soon to secure voting machines across the country against hacking in the 2018 elections. Nothing threatens democracy more than the fear that voting tallies have been tampered with.

Someday, members of Congress and other elected officials will be judged by how they behaved during the Trump years. The answer, “Oh, I just went along. It seemed more convenient,” is unlikely to win the applause of history.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.