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Column: Donald Trump inspires yet another profile in cowardice

A black-and-white photo of Gerald and Betty Ford walking side-by-side with Richard and Pat Nixon, as security and media watch
President Ford, left, and former President Nixon, right, flank their wives, Betty Ford and Pat Nixon, as the Nixons leave the White House in 1974.
(Associated Press)
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A kerfuffle in Grand Rapids, Mich., in recent days revealed a grim truth about America’s institutions in these troubled times: Too many of them lack the courage to stand up to the threat to democracy that is Donald Trump, thereby contributing to the alarming staying power of the once and perhaps future president.

We already know about the failure of the main institutional players in this constitutional crisis: those atop the Republican Party. “Political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in their 2018 bestseller, “How Democracies Die,” which documented how the once-Grand Old Party abandoned that role to enable the rise of the demagogic would-be authoritarian.

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.

Republican “leaders” at all levels recognized in 2016 the danger Trump represented, and yet, fearing his and his followers’ vitriol, mostly kept mum rather than form a united, vocal front against his nomination. Traditional Republicans who joined the Trump administration naively rationalized that they’d be good influences on the erratic president, only to learn who was boss. Trump critics turned into sycophants (here’s looking at you, Lindsey Graham), even after the disgrace of Jan. 6. When Congress fulfilled its institutional duty and impeached Trump, Republican senators acquitted him. The criminal justice system indicted the ex-president multiple times, but Republican judges and Supreme Court justices are forcing trial delays.

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Meanwhile, many in corporate America — for all their talk of civic responsibility — stifled their evident horror at various Trump antics in return for tax cuts and fewer federal regulations. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers issued a challenge early in Trump’s tenure: “If CEOs who employ hundreds of thousands of people are not in a position to speak truth to power, who is going to be?” Yes, who?

The mainstream media was cowed in covering Trump, at least initially, by its fealty to fairness, and still sometimes lapses into both-sides-ism, normalizing Trump’s abnormal behavior. And countless organizations, foundations and civic groups have stayed silent or inert, lest they offend donors or the vindictive and potentially reempowered Trump.

And that brings us to the recent brouhaha at one such organization, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, for a real-time window into institutional spinelessness in the age of Trump.

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One of the foundation’s best-known trustees — Pulitzer Prize-winner David Hume Kennerly, Ford’s White House photographer and then his friend — resigned on Tuesday after its executive committee refused three times to consider giving its annual Gerald R. Ford Medal for Distinguished Public Service to former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, herself a board member, the daughter of Ford’s White House chief of staff, Dick Cheney, and, as the nation knows, Trump’s foremost Republican antagonist.

Politico disclosed Kennerly’s five-page scorcher of a letter to the foundation’s executive committee and board, in which he revealed that the members lacked the “kind of guts” that Ford had shown as a World War II combat veteran and politician — refusing to honor Cheney for fear of enraging Trump, who might threaten the foundation’s tax-exempt status or otherwise take retribution should he become president again.

How ironic. These are the leaders of a foundation dedicated to a president who lost election in 1976 at least in part for an action he believed was in the country’s best interest: pardoning Richard M. Nixon for his Watergate crimes, soon after succeeding Nixon when the disgraced president resigned. Fifty years later, they withhold a tribute from Cheney, who lost her House leadership post and then her congressional seat thanks to MAGA Republicans, because she too took a principled stand for the good of the country — against Trump.

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“You aren’t alone,” Kennerly wryly wrote to the foundation invertebrates. “Many foundations, organizations, corporations, and other entities are caught up in this tidal wave of timidity and fear that’s sweeping this country. … This is the kind of acquiescent behavior that leads to authoritarianism. President Ford most likely would have come out even tougher and said that it leads directly to fascism.”

“Those of you who rejected Liz join many ‘good Republicans’ now aiding and abetting our 45th president by ignoring the genuine menace he presents to our country,” the letter continues.

Kennerly closed: “If the foundation that bears the name of Gerald R. Ford won’t stand up to this real threat to our democracy, who will?”

Depressingly, that question echoes the one Summers posed to corporate America seven years ago, and which has been put to many other institutions since. We’re still waiting for the answer.

The Ford Presidential Foundation‘s executive director, Gleaves Whitney, told Politico that because Cheney had not ruled out running for president this year, the nonprofit foundation could have risked losing its tax-exempt status by honoring her and making what “might be construed as a political statement.”

That’s ridiculous. Cheney is not running now, and she’s all but ruled out doing so as a third-party or independent candidate. But there is no reconsidering for the Ford folks: Their 2024 public-service award will go to Mitch Daniels, a former Indiana governor and President George W. Bush’s budget director.

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More to the point, Daniels is a once-prominent Republican who’s hardly been known as a Trump critic all these years. A safe choice, in other words.

As Cheney wrote not long after the Trump mob’s attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, “History is watching. Our children are watching.” Alas, they’re not seeing much Cheney-like courage from the nation’s institutions and Republican leaders.

It’s up to voters to stand up to Trump. Again.

@jackiekcalmes

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