Bob Corker: Hero of our time (sort of)

Tennessee's retiring Republican speaks the truth about Trump — and reveals the craven cowardice of his own party

By Heather Digby Parton

Published October 10, 2017 8:10AM (EDT)

Bob Corker (AP/Alex Brandon)
Bob Corker (AP/Alex Brandon)

On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence spent taxpayer money on a stunt orchestrated by the president: He walked out of an NFL game when some players took a knee during the national anthem. Now some team owners are apparently acceding to Donald Trump's demands that they punish players for failing to stand, which must make the president feel like a powerful man indeed. Trump has traded on a weird, kitschy patriotism from the very beginning, going so far as to literally hug the flag at times. He has often voiced a worrying admiration for public displays of military power, recently telling reporters that he was planning large military parades for the next Fourth of July.

Trump sees patriotism as a show of dominance. This is reflected in his endless paeans to "toughness" and the increasingly alarming way he conducts American foreign policy with threats, demands and broad hints that he is preparing to go to war.

He telegraphed all this during the campaign, running on a platform of global military dominance without any constraints of international law. Trump wondered aloud why we have nuclear weapons if we aren't going to use them and told our allies that unless they ponied up a lot more money, they might as well get nukes too, because the U.S. would be looking out for No. 1 from now on. He made it clear in a dozen different ways that he cared nothing for democratic norms, treaties or alliances and promised to tear up or ignore any existing agreements he didn't like.

After Trump said all that for more than a year, the Republican Party nominated him for the presidency and almost 63 million Americans voted for him six months later. So it's not exactly surprising that he believes he's been given a mandate by his voters to behave like a despotic madman. You can say a lot of things about Trump, but he has never tried to hide who he is.

It was obvious to the other half of the country that the man was both intellectually and temperamentally unfit to be president by any measure and that he had little understanding or regard for the Constitution or democratic values. But the vast majority of Republicans, including virtually all the party's elected officials, ended up backing him and have been making excuses for him all along. Since he's been president, the Republican establishment has cravenly clung to tax-cut zealot Grover Norquist's dictum that Republicans need not worry about the character or competence of their president:

We know what direction to go. . . . We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.

It turns out the "modern conservative movement" is a bunch of hot air, as demonstrated by its inability to accomplish anything at all, even with a president who would sign a grocery list if he could strut around afterward and call it a "win." More importantly, it's always been the case that the presidency is more than signing the holy grail of tax cuts. When you install a man who ran as a despotic madman, he might turn out to be one.

Virtually all left-leaning commentators have been documenting the atrocities in detail, and there have been some vociferously critical conservative pundits and analysts as well. Some elected Democrats stepped up early and often to point out that Trump is beyond the pale. But it has been more than a little bit disorienting to watch most congressional Democrats and all but one or two Republicans pretend that Trump's presidency is business as usual. Sure, they have policy disagreements and they hold high-stakes votes on important issues where they all make big speeches denouncing each other's positions. The leadership goes up to the White House and has photo-ops and eats Chinese food and "makes deals," while the emperor is walking around stark naked and raving mad -- and he's becoming more reckless and dangerous by the day.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was the first elected Republican to tell it like it is when he said last August that Trump "has not shown the stability or competence required for an American president to succeed." That caused a bit of a ripple, as did Corker's comments last week about how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly are keeping the country from descending into chaos. (That's assuming it isn't, of course.) But Corker's recent interview with The New York Times in which he said that Trump "may be setting the U.S. on the path to World War III" really got people's attention. Corker is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and not given to hyperbole.

Of course he's right. The list of Trump's affronts to the office of the presidency may be a mile long, but nothing he's done is more reckless and dangerous than this ongoing brinksmanship with North Korea and his determination to trash the Iran nuclear agreement.

Corker also let the cat out of the bag about his colleagues, who he said all agreed with his assessment of the president's dangerous unfitness. On Monday, reporters piled on, saying they had heard similar comments from many officials of both parties. Some Democrats, notably Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, made strong statements affirming the view that Trump is out of control and imploring their GOP colleagues to stop worrying about their precious tax cuts and focus on this urgent situation. But if anyone expected other Republicans to step up to back Corker, they were sadly disappointed.

Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the House Freedom Caucus chair, may have made the most revealing comment of all the Republicans when he said of Corker, who is not running for re-election, "It's easy to be bold when you're not coming back." Evidently it's too much to expect that Republican lawmakers might speak up about their president recklessly careening toward World War III when they have an election to worry about. (That's still more than a year away.)

James Fallows wrote a fine piece in the Atlantic about what Bob Corker can do to turn his words into action. He is a powerful United States senator, after all, and he bears some responsibility for enabling Trump in the first place. But it should not stop with him. These congressional Republicans are not potted plants -- they are the only ones entrusted with the power to protect the nation in the case of a rogue president.

It's hard to believe that the party that fetishized macho nationalism and swaddled itself in the flag for decades is now sitting idly by while the schoolyard-bully president puts the whole world in danger. But apparently they have defined patriotism down to the demand that football players stand for the national anthem and that's about it. Profiles in courage? Not exactly.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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