Donald Trump stole Ted Cruz's dignity -- but some Republicans have held on to theirs

  • Sen. Ted Cruz recently took to Time magazine to effusively praise President Donald Trump.
  • Even though Trump viciously attacked Cruz’s family during the 2016 campaign.
  • This made me reexamine whether national Republicans have been able to maintain their dignity in the era of Trump.
  • Some have succeeded, and others have failed. Spectacularly.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a note of warning to House Speaker Paul Ryan: Trump can beat you, but he can only take away your dignity if you surrender it to him voluntarily (or if you are Jeb Bush).

Ryan didn’t listen.

But on the occasion of Ted Cruz’s florid Time 100 tribute to the man who accused his dad of being involved in the JFK assassination and threatened to “spill the beans” on his wife, I thought it was time to take stock of the overall state of Republican dignity: Who’s offered it up to Trump on a plate, who’s preserved it, and has anyone besides Jeb had it taken away involuntarily?

The results are a mixed bag – not as grim as you might expect.

What is dignity?

Dignity is “bearing, conduct or speech indicative of self-respect.”

So, for example, if a man tweets side-by-side photos of your wife and his wife intending to show that his wife is hot and yours isn’t, and then that man beats you in an election, and then he leaves the tweet up for two years, and then you praise him for having “disoriented and distressed members of the media and political establishment” such as yourself, then your speech has failed to indicate self-respect, and you lack dignity.

I should be clear about what dignity is not. To be dignified, a Republican officeholder does not have to be a liberal. They don’t have to abandon long-held positions on issues like taxes and healthcare just because Donald Trump agrees with them. They don’t have to criticise the president at every turn.

They just have to show that they’re their own people, making choices of their own volition rather than because Trump has put them in the position of feeling they must do something.

Mostly, they have to avoid doing things that are obviously ridiculous. It’s a low bar. And a handful of Republican officeholders have even managed to clear it.

These Republicans have kept their dignity

The most obvious dignity-retainers are Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. They have been mindful of their power as the most moderate Republicans in a closely divided body, and they have leveraged that power to shape policy.

They have felt free to speak candidly about the president, who does not appear to live rent-free inside their heads.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Collins and Murkowski are women. But what’s set them apart in terms of their ability to wield independent power is the fact they both possess independent political profiles in their home states (Maine and Alaska, respectively), which means they are not held at the mercy of the Republican base.

Murkowski has already once lost a Republican primary for renomination and gotten herself reelected by running as a write-in candidate. Collins beat a credible Democratic challenger by 23 points in 2008, not an easy year for Republicans nationally, due to her enormous crossover appeal.

Unlike most Republican officeholders, Collins and Murkowski have reason to believe they could take on Trump and win, and that confidence has shone through as self-respect. (I’ll talk a little later about another Republican senator – Jeff Flake – who does not have reason for such confidence.)

A number of blue-state Republican governors have similarly demonstrated their independence from Trump: Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, and Vermont’s Phil Scott, to name a few. That’s laudable, but easier and less impressive than what Collins and Murkowski have done, since they don’t have to share a legislative process with him.

But the most impressive dignity-retainer is Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador, since she’s held onto her dignity while serving in the federal executive branch. Not only has she spared herself the usual dignity-squandering chores like defending the president’s reaction to the Charlottesville riot. She has also managed to break publicly with the administration, burnish her own political profile, and not get fired.

I actually don’t understand how she manages it.

A subjective case: Is Lindsey Graham dignified?

Lindsey grahamChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The senator from South Carolina has been all over the map. During the campaign, he called Trump “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” He said if Republicans nominated Trump, they would get destroyed and deserve it. He said Trump was a “nut job” and “a loser as a person” (which, incidentally, sounds like something Trump would say).

And now? Well, now Trump and Graham are friends, it seems.

Graham has praised the president’s handling of foreign-policy issues – especially when Trump disagrees with Graham’s Senate nemesis, Rand Paul – and, more comically, has effusively praised his golf courses and golf game.

This seems like typical boot-licking behaviour. But Graham seems to have convinced a lot of people this is all a canny strategy: praise the president in the right ways, and in doing so coax the president to support Graham’s policy objectives on issues like the Iran nuclear deal.

The theory is boosted by the fact that Graham remains willing to criticise the president at times, showing he’s got sticks to deploy along with those praise carrots.

I’m not entirely sure what Graham is up to. But there is at least a plausible theory of his handling of Trump that is consistent with self-respect, and therefore dignity.

If you say the president shot a 73 when you golfed together, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a pathetic toady. Maybe it just means you’re in on the joke.

Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have had surprising difficulty retaining their dignity

Jeff FlakeWin McNamee/Getty ImagesJeff Flake.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and the president have had an up-and-down relationship worthy of Ross Geller and Rachel Green.

Trump considered making him secretary of state but decided against it, possibly because Corker is too short. Still, Corker developed a close working relationship with the president and was a key ally on foreign-policy matters.

But by last spring, Corker complained the White House was in a “downward spiral,” and by summer he was saying Trump lacked the “stability” and “competence” he would need to succeed as president.

In the fall, Trump attacked Corker on Twitter (not for the first time) and claimed Corker “begged” for an endorsement for reelection, while people close to Corker spread the opposite story: that the president tried hard to convince Corker to run again in a seat that Republicans now stand a strong chance of losing, since Corker has decided to retire.

Corker also compared the White House to “an adult day care center.”

Corker has shown that choosing not to seek reelection gives you more freedom to speak critically about the president. But how exactly has he used that freedom to shape policy or otherwise assert his own prerogatives?

Having broken with the president, Corker has often looked adrift and bewildered – bothered by how Trump behaves but unsure he can do anything about it. Overall, he gives the impression of a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself.

A few months ago, Corker flirted with un-retiring and then decided against it, which about sums up his situation.

Still, Corker has not looked half as hapless as Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. Unlike Corker, Flake really did have good reason to fear he couldn’t be renominated. He’s been forced into involuntary retirement by the president.


Flake, like Corker, has seemed pretty clueless about what to do with the freedom that comes with retirement. As I wrote a few months ago, Flake does not seem to have any strategy for exerting influence on issues like trade where he strongly disagrees with the president.

He did write a book, though.

Are Corker’s and Flake’s situations undignified? I guess haplessness is not necessarily incompatible with self-respect. But it should make self-respect a bit harder to achieve.

Republican dignity is hard right now, but you don’t have to be Ted Cruz

National Republican politician is a terrible job these days, which is a major reason so many Republican incumbents in the House of Representatives are retiring.

Everybody wants self-respect – and the sort of person who seeks a high-profile job like member of Congress probably especially wants a positive self-image – but self-respect can be difficult to maintain when you also feel compelled to do things like explain how Mexico might pay for the wall, or defend the president for saying there were good people on both sides of a white supremacist rally.

Still, you don’t have to make additional dignity problems for yourself.

If Time magazine calls up and asks you to write a paean to the man who called your wife ugly, just decline. They will find some other toady to write it instead of you.

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