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Struggling to understand GOP cowardice

With the fate of the republic on the line, how can Republican senators shrink from their sworn duty?

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (center) with colleagues Rand Pau (left) and Marco Rubio applaud as Donald Trump delivers his State Of The Union address in February.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (center) with colleagues Rand Paul (left) and Marco Rubio applaud as Donald Trump delivers his State Of The Union address in February. All three are kissing up to Donald Trump as he tries to steal the election.
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Enough about President Donald Trump. I’m sick of him, too. He isn’t conceding. Not today, anyway. He may never concede the election he lost but will be dragged from the White House sobbing and pleading like James Cagney going to the electric chair at the end of “Angels With Dirty Faces,” his hands pried off a radiator.

Let’s talk instead about the Republicans who support Trump as he tries to overturn an American election. How can they shirk from their sworn duty at this moment of national peril? Is there anything in history to help us understand?

There’s no trouble finding traitors: Benedict Arnold, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jonathan Pollard, and of course our current president, catspaw of the Russians, friend of dictators.

But when reflecting on the moral repugnance of men like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — four powerful Republican senators who know better, who see what Trump is attempting, yet do nothing, or worse abet him — I search history in vain for similar craven cowardice.

Literature offers a few: “Lord Jim,” by Joseph Conrad. Jim is a British sailor on the crew of the Patna, a ship on the Red Sea. The ship founders, and the captain and crew — and after some hesitation, Jim — abandon the ship and its 800 Muslim pilgrims.

Only the Patna doesn’t sink. It’s towed into port, and Jim and his shipmates are publicly vilified. He wanders the world, fleeing his shame. But that’s fiction.

I turned to Chris Walsh, author of “Cowardice” and director of the College of Arts & Science’s Writing Program at Boston University. So many leaders are hiding from their duty; why am I having trouble finding parallels in history?

“I’m sure there’s been plenty of cowards in our history,” he replied. “One of the things I argue in my book is, history doesn’t record cowards. There is a Spanish proverb, ‘Of cowards nothing is written.’ It is the fate of cowards to pass unnoticed.”

It would be a shame if they’re forgotten. I’d prefer infamy. I like to imagine these four senators, their heads shaven like women who slept with Nazis in occupied Europe after the war, marched out of Washington, past howling, outraged citizens raining spittle upon them.

People once reacted to cowardice with reflexive repugnance.

“Cowardice is drawn from military conceptions: the failure to do your duty because of excessive fear,” Walsh said. That has been effaced by understanding of PTSD. We don’t scorn the soldier who throws down his gun so much anymore.

“A fear of cowardice is much more powerful than desire to be heroic,” said Walsh. “That’s what makes soldiers do the right thing. Studies show this.”

Fear of cowardice seems utterly absent in the GOP.

“The duty of Republican leadership right now is clear,” Walsh said. “They should honor their oath to the Constitution and to the good of the country, more than they honor their short-term political self interest.”

Why don’t they?

“They have no shame,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to affect them.”

Walsh can see that. And I can see that. And maybe you can see that. But they can’t, or won’t. Nor can certain readers, who write, “But what about her emails?”

Walsh brought up an interesting point.

“Cowardice is an idea that sheds more heat than light,” he said. “What I wanted to do with the book is have people think about it. Before you accuse somebody else of cowardice, think what your own duty is. What you should do, but don’t do, out of excessive fear, out of complacency or love of security.”

Calling out someone for cowardice — I’m looking at you, Ted Cruz — could yet be corrective.

“Often that moment is when people hit bottom, when they recognize what they’re going to do,” Walsh said. “They get slapped and called a coward, and that’s the thing that provokes them to do the right thing.”

In the movies, maybe. Cagney’s final cowardice is an act. He destroys his own reputation as a tough guy at the request of a priest, to keep admiring street punks from following his example. Republican senators won’t do the same, not even to save the country.

You’ll know Trump is finally vanquished when Marco Rubio stands up straight, arranges his features in a determined look and announces he was against him the whole time.