Ben Sasse isn’t just a politician — he’s a historian. Before becoming a Republican senator for Nebraska, he earned a Ph.D in history from Yale University, then served as president of Midland University. The Senate is full of men and women with huge egos who secretly hope and believe the eyes of history are upon them, but Sasse might have a deeper appreciation of what that actually means.
That could explain why, on Thursday night, Sasse released a statement rebuking President Trump’s lawyers — including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — for the outrageous, conspiracy-mongering press conference they held earlier in the day at which they floated false theories that the election had been stolen from their client, part of an unprecedented effort to subvert and overturn Trump’s election loss to Joe Biden.
Sasse was having none of it.
“What matters most at this stage is not the latest press conference or tweet, but what the president’s lawyers are actually saying in court,” he said. “And based on what I’ve read in their filings, when Trump campaign lawyers have stood before courts under oath, they have repeatedly refused to actually allege grand fraud — because there are legal consequences for lying to judges.
“President Trump lost Michigan by more than 100,000 votes, and the campaign and its allies have lost in or withdrawn from all five lawsuits in Michigan for being unable to produce any evidence. Wild press conferences erode public trust. So no, obviously Rudy and his buddies should not pressure electors to ignore their certification obligations under the statute. We are a nation of laws, not tweets.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) followed up with his own comment later Thursday. “Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the president has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” he tweeted. “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”
Sasse and Romney are obviously correct. But relatively few elected Republicans have been brave enough to step forward and refute the lies thrown out by Trump’s allies. What makes them different?
They understand hindsight, and care how history will remember them.
The two probably know that a number of figures involved in the current election drama are writing the first paragraph of their future obituaries. For example, Emily Murphy, a Government Services Administration official, was unknown to the general public before this month — now she’ll forever be remembered as the person who blocked the transition to a Biden administration. Giuliani, who after 9/11 was known as “America’s Mayor,” is now more likely to show up in history books as Trump’s bumbling henchman. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), well, where do we even start? The guy once known as Sen. John McCain’s little buddy now faces an ethics complaint for meddling in Georgia’s election results.
American history is often presented as a morality tale, good guys versus bad guys. Because of their choices, so deeply injurious to this country’s democracy, Murphy, Giuliani, and Graham — among other allies and family members of this president — are likely to be remembered as villains.
Trump, of course, has often presented himself as a stalwart defender of American history, but came to office only dimly aware of the details— suggesting that Frederick Douglass was alive, or that Americans don’t know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Mostly, he has been incapable of seeing beyond his own needs, desires, and emotions in a particular moment, heedless of the consequences that might result from acting on his impulses. Otherwise, how could a rich man end up so deeply in debt? And knowing that his name and legacy were on the line not just in this election, but for decades and centuries to come, how could he just give up even trying to fight the coronavirus pandemic? It makes no sense.
The few Republicans who have dared to oppose Trump the last four years often seem to have their eye on a bigger picture. Romney, for example, isn’t just the loser of the 2012 presidential race anymore — now he will also be remembered as the lone GOP senator who voted for Trump’s impeachment. Romney’s speech announcing his vote was imbued with a sense of how previous generations of Americans did their duty, and cast an eye towards how future observers will perceive the events of 2020.
“We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history,” he said at the time, “but in the most powerful nation on Earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen.”
Republicans like Sasse and Romney aren’t totally immune to the temptations of power. Sasse was often silent during long stretches of the Trump administration — and voted against Trump’s impeachment — while Romney helped accelerate Trump’s rise as a political figure. It would be nice if they had found their dignity a bit sooner. But they seem to understand this is a fraught moment, one that will be written about and remembered by future generations. America is being tested by history. Right now, all too many of their fellow Republicans are failing.
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