Or, simply stated, the opposite of Profiles in Courage.
Poltroonery is an old word, befitting some old men or younger men with an ossified sense of ethics and a diminished sense of honor. Chuck Grassley, Kevin McCarthy, and Steve Scalise come to mind. They qualify as profiles in Poltroonery, or, let’s just say it, self-centered, self-interested political hackery, who will do what they have to do, and say what they have to say to get re-elected. Conversely, Liz Cheney and a pitifully small group of Republicans will undoubtedly be remembered by history as genuine Profiles in Courage.
There are only two reasons for a public figure to dance around the affront that January 6th was, and is, to American constitutional democracy; malignant partisanship or rank political cowardice.
lt is of no particular surprise that McCarthy and Scalise have turned out to be Toadies for Trump. They are relatively young, exceedingly ambitious, and will do whatever they have to do to pander to the former President. He holds sway over their once honorable party for the time being, and rather than honorably fight that sad reality, they pander to it.
Senator Grassley is another matter. Political ambition can’t be his motivation to pander. He’s an old man who will be pushing 100 by the time his next Senate stint ends, assuming Iowa voters return him to the Senate next year. There’s no mystery why Grassley joined former President Trump at his Iowa rally earlier this week. He told us why. “If I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91% of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.”
This, from the same man who only months ago said of former President Trump, “he continued to argue that the election had been stolen even though the courts didn’t back up his claims,” and “belittled and harassed elected officials across the country to get his way…. encouraged his own, loyal vice president, Mike Pence, to take extraordinary and unconstitutional actions during the Electoral College count. There’s no doubt in my mind that President Trump’s language was extreme, aggressive, and irresponsible,” Trump, he said, “must take responsibility for their destructive actions that day.” Well, that was smart. What he had to say at the Iowa rally, however, wasn’t smart. It was simply craven.
What is really tragic about Senator Grassley’s genuflect to Trump is that it wasn’t essential to his re-election. Grassley enjoys exceptionally high approval ratings in Iowa. He was the ideal Republican to stand up to Trump, the man he called irresponsible and the man he said had demanded that his Vice President take extraordinary and unconstitutional actions on January 6th.
Then again, so many members of my old party have turned out to be craven toadies, or as Merriam-Webster would put it, “lacking the least bit of courage, or contemptibly fainthearted.”
Grassley and the others have, with eyes wide open, chosen to make a Faustian bargain with the former President. In effect, we won’t publicly admit that you lost the election or encouraged the deadly insurrection on January 6th, which was a blatant attack on American constitutional democracy. In return, you will praise us, and you won’t endorse or support whoever might run against us in the next election cycle. Such Faustian bargains never work out well in the long run, but as the late economist John Maynard Keynes once famously said, “In the long run, we’ll all be dead.”
Most Republicans cringe at Trump’s anti-democratic nonsense and demagoguery and his outrageous penchant for lying with such complete abandon. They rationalize that putting up with such behavior is an acceptable price to pay to stay in power. Elsewhere today, and in the past, others have made the same mistake. Never poke the bear, they rationalize, and we’ll stay in power. Other American politicians knew better. As John Kennedy reminded my generation sixty years ago, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.“
But sadly, we’ve seen this craven pandering before. It has become the Republican game plan, and it may well yield a short-term tactical advantage. However, it is likely to result in long-term strategic disaster for them and, quite possibly, for the rest of the country as well.
Seventy years ago, Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz described in his international bestseller, The Captive Mind, how the political toadies of the day behaved in the presence of the authoritarian strongmen on whose good graces they had hitched their wagons. “Some were recalcitrant; some tried not to show how much his favor meant to them; some were openly servile. In a short time, he was surrounded by a court of yes-men who frowned when he frowned or guffawed loudly whenever he deigned to tell a joke.”