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The Atlantic, February 28, 2019

The full spectrum of Republican behavior has been on display this week. Michael Cohen (no relation, save in the most distant possible sense) ratted out his former boss Donald Trump in a spectacularly revealing piece of congressional testimony. Representative Matt Gaetz, the self-described “outspoken conservative firebrand” from Florida, threatened Cohen (by tweet, of course) with revelations of marital infidelity. When reminded that this could be construed as witness tampering, he pulled the tweet. The vast majority of House Republicans lined up to vote against a resolution rejecting President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. And 13 Republicans, including Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin—like Gaetz, a second-term representative—voted in favor of it.

Cohen is not the most pathetic specimen of Republican. He was a little grifter hopelessly, shamelessly attempting to make something of himself by attaching his person to a really big grifter. His testimony is one long recitation of Trump’s scams, bigotry, payoffs, and lies. And possibly worse, of a dirty-tricks campaign in the 2016 election coordinated with a foreign power.

Cohen’s contrition is forcefully put: Whether they are his words or those of his lawyer, one cannot tell. But he gave the impression of having retained enough decency, despite a career of emptying the chamber pots of the Trump Organization, to evince some sense of shame. Perhaps it is the shadow of the Holocaust that darkened his father’s early life; perhaps it is affection for a family that he admits he betrayed; perhaps it is a spark of the moral sense that can survive a career of abasement.

The contrast between Gaetz and Gallagher is much more interesting. Gaetz, a product of William & Mary Law School, is a fierce defender of all things military. His website touts his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, of which he is a lifetime member. He voted to support the president, of course, and avows his determination to root out corruption in the Justice Department and the FBI, institutions that Republicans like him once supported.

Gallagher might or might not have the same ardent love of guns that Gaetz has; he certainly does not have the same morbid suspicion of federal law-enforcement officers. But he actually carried a weapon in the service of his country, which so many of the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots of the GOP have inexplicably avoided. After graduating from Princeton, he joined the United States Marine Corps and served several tours in the dusty, dangerous Anbar province in Iraq before getting a doctorate at Georgetown University. He is one of the thoughtful voices on national defense in Congress, although he does not boast about it. He just does his job.

And then there is the gray mass of Republicans in the middle, the ones in the House who voted with the president in favor of declaring a national emergency, and the ones who will do so in the Senate. They are not as sleazy as Cohen, as pugnaciously nasty as Gaetz, or as principled as Gallagher. They are simpler souls: They are cowards.

Talk to them privately, and they will confess that there is no emergency at the southern border—there is a problem, to be sure, but one whose seriousness has actually diminished over time. They know that the congressional leadership had the votes to build walls there for the first two years of the administration but did not manage it. They know, for that matter, that border security involves much more than walls. They know that the president is invoking emergency powers as an electoral ploy, and because he is impatient.

They know, in their timid breasts, that they would have howled with indignation if Barack Obama had declared a national emergency in such a circumstance. As they stare at their coffee cup at breakfast, the thought occurs to them that a future left-wing president could make dangerous use of these same powers—because Speaker Nancy Pelosi rubbed that fact in their face. Some of the brighter ones might even realize that emergency powers are a favored tool of authoritarians everywhere. ...
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