It’s Time to Call Out Political Cowards

The story of the first days of the Trump administration will be one of politicians and Americans who showed up to fight for the future—and those who made themselves small and hid.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

At the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, before the meteor hit, mammals were squirrely beasts that lived in caves and crevices and holes. Because they were so small, our first warm-blooded ancestors were able to survive the impact that killed the scaly predators that had driven them underground to begin with. They stayed alive by being quiet enough to go unnoticed, small enough to escape. A great strategy for a warm-blooded vertebrate, a spineless one for a politician.

It’s easy to hide from the fight for survival if the fight is mythic in scale. And at this particular moment in history, things feel apocalyptic. For Trump foes, the heroes of the Trump period have been cartoonishly good Good Guys like Sally Yates, the associate attorney general who Trump fired for standing up to his Muslim ban—a principled, brilliant woman with a small-town haircut. They’ve been young Obama-appointed district judges with first names like “Ann” and Judith,” or a telegenic trio of diverse women organizing a march that ended up being one of the largest single-day demonstrations in U.S. history. Two female Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have thrown the confirmation of Trump’s would-be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos into question. DeVos, a billionaire megadonor who never attended public school—and maybe plagiarized some of the answers she submitted in response to a Senate questionnaire—really flunked her Senate committee hearing, thanks in part to a grilling from Elizabeth Warren, who is no stranger to yelling at people on C-SPAN.

The villains in this fight have been as cartoonishly bad as its heroes have been good. Jared Kushner, slumlord. Donald Trump’s large adult sons Eric and Don Jr., either of whom could have adequately played a body double in the Christian Bale film adaptation of American Psycho, provided they’re far enough in the background that the camera doesn’t fully capture the weakness of their Trump chins. Reince Priebus, a sniveling, shifty-eyed schemer. Steves Bannon and Miller, who, if literally drawn as cartoons, would be represented as a drunken bear demanding to see the manager at Applebee’s and a weasel issuing a foreclosure notice. Trump’s almost entirely male cabinet of developers and climate deniers and fact-ignorerers hellbent on advancing their own financial interests over the interests of the country. Reports on just who has the president’s ear change by the day, because the White House is all infighting and chaos that spills out into the world, like shock waves from an interstellar impact centered on Washington.

America wants to be entertained, which is why an entertainer is the President. America wants heroes and villains, which is why it’s searching for narratives about rightness and wrongness to slap on a messy, complicated reality. America wants the news to be broken down into a cover-song version of a song it already knows. It’s hard to resist a good battle of the sexes narrative, especially when the gender breakdown of Team Trump versus The Resistance seems so lopsided.

But women are no more to be celebrated for being the ones standing between Trump’s nihilistic vision and reality than they are to be blamed for handing him the election. Nor are men exclusively the malignant whispers in Trump’s ear as he signs orders barring children from war zones from finding safety on U.S. soil. Al Franken, John McCain, and John Lewis have vocally opposed the President. Ivanka Trump—where the hell is the self-proclaimed advocate of women and children while her father enacts his cruel agenda, by the way?—and Kellyanne Conway have been enthusiastic Trump surrogates. This isn’t a battle between men and women. The first weeks of the Trump administration tell the story of people who stood up to fight and people who made themselves small and hid. The people who showed up versus the people who didn’t.

Donald Trump didn’t win the electoral college vote because he got a record number of individual votes. The fact that he lost the popular vote by 3 million has driven him so off his rocker that his goon Kellyanne Conway had to introduce the phrase “alternative facts” into the lexicon. Trump won because the people who should have been standing up stayed home or were silenced. And if Trump is able to enact his agenda, it won’t be because Steves Bannon and Miller are brilliant political minds. It will be because people who should be doing something decided they’d rather get tiny and hide in a hole than stand up and fight like the future depends on it.

People who shrink away from this moment must not be let off the hook. Paul Ryan’s soggy self-preserving nincompoopery shouldn’t go unnoted in the minds of the public or in history books. Mitch McConnell’s 180 on whether or not the President knows what he’s doing, his passive acceptance of the Trump agenda should be an indelible and damning part of his legacy. The Democrats who soaked up photo ops at camera-friendly protests and did not fight Trump’s more offensive nominees tooth and nail should have inboxes and foyers full of dissatisfied constituents until they put their money where their mouths are. Virginia Rep. David Brat, who whined about angry female constituents confronting him about his support of the Obamacare repeal, should be remembered as a political coward. Same with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, former primary foes of Trump who painted Trump as dangerous and immoral only to support him as though nothing had happened. Cruz even went so far as to refuse to endorse Trump at the Republican convention, a stand I’m sure he thought was pretty tough, until he endorsed him shortly thereafter. Where’s Jeb Bush? Go ahead and write it down. Make your own political shit list. Hang it above your desk. Add and subtract as necessary.

Assigning meaning to an event as it’s unfolding is foolish; time is what assigns meaning, not your immediate reaction. At least, that’s what the meditation podcast I’ve listened to when my stress tooth grinding keeps me up at night keeps telling me. But one thing is fairly certain: history doesn’t forget the noisy voices once the dust settles, the winners and losers. People of the future that awaits after all this will celebrate those who exhibited bravery, on one side or the other. They’ll deride the aggressively malignant. They’ll cheer the heroic. They’ll give Oscars to actors and actresses who play both. But the people who are truly letting their country down at times like these are the ones who run and hide in the woods until the dust settles. Political self-preservation in dire circumstances is just about the same as cowardice.