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Column: Rational Republican leaders could keep their mouths shut instead of endorsing Trump. Why won’t they?

An older man in the foreground with a younger man, both in suits
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Sen. John Thune. Thune endorsed Trump on Saturday. Will McConnell be next?
(Mariam Zuhaib / Associated Press)
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The Republican Party’s transformation into an anti-government populist movement has been a bottom-up phenomenon: Conservative voters, radicalized by right-wing radio, Fox News, social media and opportunistic demagogues, rose up for their tea party takeover. Then the biggest demagogue of all, Donald Trump, harnessed those voters to make the party his own.

That merger of man and movement has been Trump’s superpower for nearly a decade. Party leaders, fearful of his sway over voters, turned invertebrate, groveled at his bidding and let Trump indulge his worst impulses unchecked.

The party’s “boneless wonders” made Trump’s election possible in 2016. They resurrected him after his post-Jan. 6 decline. And now, it seems, their reemergence to assist in his 2024 comeback is near-complete.

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Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

I was reminded of the invective “boneless wonder” — Winston Churchill’s description of an opposition-party British prime minister a century ago, based on a childhood memory of a circus freak — by recent news about the Senate’s two Republican leaders, who have been among the few party holdouts when it comes to endorsing Trump for reelection.

The Republican whip, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, caved on Saturday, after Trump won the fourth straight nominating contest, in South Carolina. Then the New York Times reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who announced Wednesday that he will step down as leader this year, might be about to endorse him as well. McConnell reportedly hasn’t spoken to Trump since 2020.

Fifteen stingy GOP-led states are refusing federal money that would help feed hungry children this summer.

Feb. 26, 2024

That’s depressing. Certainly neither McConnell nor Thune has been a profile in courage regarding Trump. In February 2021, McConnell engineered the former president’s Senate acquittal after his House impeachment for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. Both men have mostly tried to ignore Trump. But at least they haven’t been echoing his lies or excusing them, like former detractors-turned-Senate sycophants Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ohio’s J.D. Vance, Texas’ Ted Cruz, Florida’s Marco Rubio and South Carolina’s Tim Scott.

Why not remain silent? No one should be fooled that either McConnell or Thune thinks Trump is fit to be president.

Republican boneless wonders crowd the Senate, the House and state capitols nationwide, deaf to Trump’s divisiveness, silent about his indecency and without principles left to stand on. We’ll never know what might have been had a phalanx of Liz Cheneys, Adam Kinzingers and Mitt Romneys formed to counter Trumpism.

I’d celebrate Nikki Haley for her decision to stay in a losing race against Trump and for her belated truth-telling about why he’s unfit, except that I’m sure she’ll endorse him eventually.

What the former president reveals on the stump should wipe away any doubt about which candidate is unhinged.

Feb. 22, 2024

I am not alone in channeling Churchill when considering the spineless politicians of the Trump era. At its start, early in the Republicans’ contest for the 2016 nomination, conservative columnist George Will noted that Trump’s rivals, “disoriented by their fear and envy of him, are making the GOP seem like the party of boneless wonders.” And this week, conservative pundit and Never Trumper Bill Kristol similarly evoked Churchill’s pejorative in a piece for the Bulwark website lamenting Thune’s surrender. “The capitulation of the decent is particularly demoralizing,” Kristol wrote.

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I share Kristol’s disappointment that the likable, pragmatic Thune, who hopes to succeed McConnell as the Senate Republican leader, endorsed Trump; both of Thune’s rivals for the leadership had already done so. As for McConnell, I’m outraged that he is even thinking about it, especially now.

McConnell has styled himself one of Ukraine’s foremost supporters since Russia invaded two years ago, and Trump, the de facto speaker of the MAGAfied House, right now is blocking Congress’ approval of further aid to the desperate Ukrainians. You’d think McConnell might be considering condemning Trump, not weighing an endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s admirer.

And go back three years to Feb. 13, 2021. After ensuring Trump’s Senate acquittal that day for his role in the Capitol assault, McConnell delivered a speech that remains one of the most damning anti-Trump indictments ever by a Republican not named Cheney. Trump’s actions, McConnell said, “were a disgraceful — disgraceful! — dereliction of duty.” Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the violence. He “seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”

‘History is watching,’ says President Biden, and it is. Not that the MAGA ‘America first’ disciples in Congress care.

Feb. 19, 2024

McConnell would want that man back in power? In his speech, he characterized the Jan. 6 rioters as terrorists. Now he’d help reelect Trump, who calls them “hostages” and vows to pardon them.

McConnell decried Trump’s “crescendo” of conspiracies, his “thundering” about a stolen election to whip up his supporters. Has McConnell watched a MAGA rally lately? Trump is still thundering about that Big Lie and warning his faithful that Democrats — “thugs and tyrants and fascists, scoundrels and rogues” — will steal the next election unless they’re stopped. Does McConnell think political violence is a thing of the past?

At the end of that Senate speech, McConnell assured Americans that the former president was “still liable for everything he did while he was in office” in our civil and criminal justice systems. “He is not immune,” the senator said. Now Trump has gone all the way to the Supreme Court to argue otherwise.

The justices aren’t expected to side with him, but Trump has another plan for escaping accountability — by getting reelected and making his cases disappear. Which is exactly what backing from the likes of Thune and McConnell will help to happen.

For a political operator like McConnell to endorse Trump wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Still, you’d think a legacy-minded octogenarian would not want to seal his reputation as a boneless wonder.

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@jackiekcalmes

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