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What E. Jean Carroll could teach ‘tough’ Republicans about calling out a bully

Trump, the GOP front-runner, wields his big GOP base like an ax

E. Jean Carroll leaves a Manhattan federal court on Jan. 26 following the conclusion of her civil defamation trial against former President Donald Trump.
E. Jean Carroll leaves a Manhattan federal court on Jan. 26 following the conclusion of her civil defamation trial against former President Donald Trump. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

E. Jean Carroll is a brave woman. And her courage calls out the cowardice of many who could learn a thing or two from the writer who just won a judgment of $83.3 million — a sum set by a jury of Americans doing their duty — against the man who defamed her.

Considering all she has gone through, I’m sure if Carroll could trade that money for the life and the reputation she built before she learned the truth about the character of that character Donald Trump, she would.

But the findings in her civil cases did seem to bring a sort of justice, and a sense of liberation. In an interview this week on MSNBC, she told host Rachel Maddow how she felt about the prospect of facing Trump in the courtroom: “I lost my ability to speak, I lost my words, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t go on. That’s how frightened I was.” 

But after she entered the courtroom and took the witness stand, Carroll said: “Amazingly, I looked out, and he was nothing. He was nothing. He was a phantom.” 

That she fought and she won at 80, an age when women in our culture aren’t especially valued, made her elation lovely to behold.

Carroll’s triumph and her joy made me think of all the big, strong men Trump has insulted and worse, who nevertheless have lined up to support him and debase themselves in the process. I’d love to ask them, as they grin and bear it through clenched teeth, if it’s worth it, the “it” being a Senate seat, a Cabinet appointment or a future with the MAGA base Trump wields like an ax.

With Trump, it’s always personal, with attacks extending to real and perceived enemies, their families and friends. The behavior he exhibited in the courtroom — muttering in earshot of the jury, taking the stand and ignoring the judge’s orders, stalking out during Carroll’s lawyer’s closing statement — probably worked against him with ordinary citizens who could see with their eyes that this emperor had no clothes.

But the bullying and childish acting out sure does the trick for politicians who swore an oath to defend the Constitution, not an election-denying would-be dictator (well, at least on the first day).

I still can’t get over Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s getting over insults to his wife and father, and the “Lyin’ Ted” moniker bestowed upon him by Trump when both were running for the 2016 presidential nomination. When I met and interviewed Heidi Cruz during her husband’s run, she was quite lovely and charming and a dedicated surrogate for the Cruz campaign.

Sen. Cruz later swatted away Trump’s remarks, the ones he had said at the time came from “a sniveling coward,” by saying his wife had laughed off the insults and insinuations. I can’t help but wonder, though, if Mrs. Cruz was on the receiving end of apologies and make-up presents.

Now, because Texas has been pretty much a lock for Republicans, I suspect there would not have been much long-term damage for the senator. Yet, Cruz went even further than simply backing off the Trump criticism. He praised President Trump in a Time magazine essay as a “flash-bang grenade” needed to upend Washington as usual.

Did he show it to Trump for the last edit?

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham went from saying, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed and we will deserve it,” in 2016, and washing his hands of the former president after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, to trekking to Mar-a-Lago for a round of golf and defending the legitimacy of Trump’s courtroom claims of presidential immunity.

Remember, Trump once gleefully announced Graham’s cellphone number to an amped-up rally crowd.

This year’s GOP also-rans didn’t waste any time before rushing to share the spotlight with the man they tiptoed around while trying to replace, though Trump never holds back when anyone dares challenge him. In victory, Trump predictably acted true to form, proving that support for him doesn’t count unless it comes with a healthy dose of humiliation.

At a New Hampshire speech last week after he won the state’s Republican presidential primary, Trump was anything but gracious. He invited former opponent Vivek Ramaswamy to speak — “but only if he promises to do it in a minute or less.”

Tim Scott escaped much of Trump’s wrath during his short-lived primary campaign, probably because the South Carolina Republican senator didn’t pose much of a threat. But on that New Hampshire stage, Trump could not resist trying to goad Scott into trashing Nikki Haley, who as the Palmetto State’s governor appointed Scott to the U.S. Senate seat he later won in an election.

“You must really hate her,” said Trump. Scott’s reply after an awkward pause: “I just love you!”

But was it enough to be anointed as running mate?

The Trump team’s cruel digs against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were in a category all their own, as everything from his manhood to his choice of footwear was questioned. You wanted to ask Trump and company if they pull the wings off flies in their spare time.

Yet, the definition of a nanosecond is the time between the DeSantis campaign implosion and his endorsement of Donald Trump.

It is interesting that Trump seems to be most flummoxed when a woman hits back, as his criticisms of Nikki Haley — the last one standing against him in the GOP presidential nomination race — go nuclear.

It was almost laughable when the man who still insists he won in 2020 blew his top over Haley’s optimistic spin on her second-place New Hampshire showing.

Still, according to Haley, she would pardon him, and, I believe, vote for him.

Trump knows it, which is why he demands not just capitulation but also fealty — “kissing the ring” and “bending the knee.” Former opponents and anyone who fears Trump’s authoritarian impulses take the body blows, and, like little Oliver Twist begging for another bowl of nasty gruel, beg: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Watching their abdication makes me admire Carroll all the more; she took on Donald Trump when he was still president of the United States.

She proved you can do it, and win.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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