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Opinion: These Republican former officials are the real truth tellers


Opinion by John Avlon, CNN

(CNN) — The words of two prominent Republicans last week told us all we need to know about the GOP’s 2024 problem.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday, former President Donald “Trump’s not a conservative. He’s a populist, authoritarian narcissist.”

The same day, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin — once celebrated as a “normie” alternative to Trumpism — acknowledged that he’d happily back Trump if he were to be the GOP nominee: “Listen, he and I have different styles, but his policies were effective and they worked.”

Who to believe? Pay attention to the word “former” in front of Paul Ryan’s name.

A recent survey of former members of Congress by the University of Massachusetts Amherst delineates this division, with people who previously served being much more willing to tell the truth about Trump than those currently active in politics.

The survey found that more than 80% of former Republican congressman acknowledge the fact that Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory was legitimate — compared to just 26% of voting-age Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Republican former members believe that Trump’s election lies are dangerous for our democracy — while just 18% of Republican rank and file voters agree.

Finally, 72% of Republican former members of Congress believe that those involved with the January 6 attack should be prosecuted versus just 29% of the Republican rank and file. That delta speaks to the gap between what Republican officials know to be true and what’s being communicated to the base. That’s a profound failure of leadership as a result of the twisted incentive structures in the Republican Party today.

The people who worked with Trump up close as president are the ones warning the loudest. To pick just one, here’s former Trump Chief of Staff, General John Kelly’s assessment of the man who might be president again: “A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution and the rule of law.”

But his hardcore rank and file supporters are not persuaded by facts that run contrary to their adoring vision of the man one unnamed congressman ironically called our “Orange Jesus” while registering his objection to certifying the 2020 election.

According to a New York Times poll from July, hardcore Maga voters make up 37% of Republicans. In contrast, 25% firmly oppose Trump.  Another 37% of Republican voters describe themselves as persuadable — meaning they could go with Trump or swing to an alternative candidate.

Those persuadable GOP voters are the key constituency in the upcoming GOP primaries — but many of their elected avatars have been backing into Trump support before the primaries even begin. For example, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said he would back Trump for re-election on his way out the doors of Capitol Hill.

This is where Republican careerism and cowardice intersect. Many conservative politicians acknowledge Trump’s fundamental unfitness for office in private but feel afraid to acknowledge that in public, precisely because of Trump’s popularity among the base.

Some current Republican electeds are afraid of losing closed partisan primaries, something often threatened by the Trump crew in their insistence on unquestioning loyalty. Others, who are leaving elected office, may be compelled by the desire to benefit from the partisan economy, knowing they can enrich themselves after office as long as the vindictive Trump team does not declare them persona non grata. Still others normalize Trump to preserve their future political viability within the party.

These rationalizations, which place party over country, contribute to what former Republican congresswoman — and genuine constitutional conservative — Liz Cheney has described as “sleepwalking  into dictatorship.”

It should be unthinkable for a party that prides itself on patriotism to renominate a former president who tried to overturn an election on the basis of a lie that led to an attack on our capital.

It should be unthinkable for a party that prides itself on supporting law and order to renominate a man who’s been indicted on 91 counts in four different cases. (Trump denies wrongdoing.)

It should be unthinkable for a party that once prided itself on advancing freedom at home and abroad to nominate a candidate formulating autocratic plans for the presidency, policies which are protectionist in the economy, isolationist in foreign policy and admiring of dictators around the world. Trump, who has professed love for North Korea’s Kim Jung Un and shown fealty to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, is now regularly praising China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping on the stump.

This is the opposite of Republicanism in the Reagan tradition. But Trump’s polarizing cult of personality — combined with the cowardice and careerism of too many Republican elected officials — has made this dangerous situation all too real for our country.

There is still time for Republicans to choose an actual constitutional conservative to be their nominee — but according to polls they seem to prefer the “narcissistic autocrat” instead.

Given his deep unpopularity outside the Republican base, it’s unlikely that Trump would win the popular vote in a general election — especially given the fact that he’s never won the popular vote; he was elected in 2016 thanks to the Electoral College. But the idea of majoritarian democracy is actively being undercut inside the Trumpified GOP. If he returns to the White House,  there will be no guardrails among Republicans to constrain his goal of political revenge. Our autocratic enemies would welcome the nation’s division and decline.

That’s why it’s important to listen to Liz Cheney’s clear-eyed call to arms from her new best-selling book: “Every one of us — Republican, Democrat, Independent — must work and vote together to ensure that Donald Trump and those who have appeased, enabled, and collaborated with him are defeated…This is the cause of our time.”

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