Man of the hour! Bob Corker, retiring Republican senator from Tennessee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has been earning Twitter plaudits for his sorties against President Trump. He has called the president a toddler on Twitter (134,000 retweets and counting!) and told The New York Times that the president's instability might well put America "on the path to World War III."
In the scripted kabuki theater of American politics, the respected Republican statesman who calls out the president of his own party as reckless or extreme is a stock character, who must always receive loud calls of adulation from the chorus of the press. Bravo!
But why is it, exactly, that anyone should respect Bob Corker's opinion about the president? Should it be more, or less, respected than his endorsement of that same irresponsible toddler for the presidency? His campaign-era praise for the foreign policy thinking of the man who he now warns risks World War III? His jockeying for a spot on the ticket with the toddler? His dismissal of those who, within the Republican Party, were saying exactly the same things, you know, back when something could have been done about it?
There has been a very strong correlation between Bob Corker's public comments on Donald Trump and Bob Corker's perceived short-term interests, and his new about-face is no exception. He only started "uncorking" (get it?) about Trump once he decided not to run for re-election in a state that Trump carried by 25 points. He has calibrated his retirement announcement to encourage speculation about a 2020 bid, for which his recent comments are clearly useful in positioning him as an establishment primary challenge to Trump. What is it, exactly, that anyone should respect here?
For the record, I am not engaging in "whataboutism." I absolutely agree with Corker that the president of the United States behaves like a toddler and in other ways that are grave and alarming. The difference is that I haven't spent the past year obfuscating about that for political gain.
It's worth expressing some moral outrage about that. Corker was an instrumental part of a Republican establishment that foreswore every opportunity to stop Trump during the campaign for the sake of short-term political gain: refusing to unite behind an anti-Trump candidate, quashing dissent in the run-up to the convention, sucking away the oxygen that might have enabled a non-quixotic third-party conservative bid, comforting themselves with notions that the GOP could "run the country from Congress" and so it was okay to put a "toddler" in charge of America's nuclear arsenal. Edmund Burke was right: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The Bob Corkers of the world bear more responsibility for Donald Trump's election than the Stephen Bannons and Sean Hannitys. Corker's "toddler" comment is damning — but less so for Trump (it's not exactly a scoop) than for Corker himself. If Trump is such a toddler, why did Corker enable his rise in the first place?
But there is also an important, even fundamental, political point, here. As Talleyrand, that French geopolitical master whom foreign policy hands should be able to quote, would say, "C'est pire qu'un crime, c'est une faute." ("It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.") It is well-understood that the United States, and the West in general, is in the grips of a populist insurgency that often has noxious ideas and even more often lacks the competence to turn even its good ideas into policy. It is less well-understood that a main driver of this insurgency's strength is the intellectual and even, arguably, moral bankruptcy of too many in our governing elites, who often speak the language of the common good but seem to believe in little more than that the common good always intersects with their own class interest and that they have a natural right to rule. Bob Corker's sudden rediscovery of principle right at the moment when it stops being risky politically is a darkly comical symbol of this contemptible attitude.
Donald Trump became president at least in part because large swathes of Republican voters feel screwed by their party, and they feel this way because they are, well, correct. During his Senate tenure, Bob Corker's notable stances on economic policy include voting for Wall Street bailouts, support for a flat tax, and attacks on Social Security and Medicare.
Fixing a problem requires first understanding it. Trump's personal behavior is contemptible and alarming, but the reason why someone like Trump could get into the White House in the first place, and the way to prevent a new Trump once this one is out one way or another, is to understand how and why the establishment that enabled his rise and the rise of his movement failed. There has been no hint that Bob Corker or those of his establishment ilk understand any of this, or plan to do anything about it other than continue to behave like the stereotype of the kind of establishment Republican that drove a once-proud party (and thence, the world) into the hands of a fool.
Trump's obvious psychological unfitness for his office, important though it is, is also a convenient way to distract from the fundamental failures of the Republican establishment that made him possible. But on this subject Bob Corker has been utterly silent. I would rather hand the nuclear button to Bob Corker than Donald Trump, but if the difference between a toddler and a man is that the latter is capable to self-reflect and then take responsibility for his own actions, then the difference between these two becomes blurred.
Bob Corker isn't an opponent of Donald Trump. He is his enabler.