Republican leaders in Maine — and around the country — are missing their movie moment.
They could be Jimmy Stewart, the earnest hero in the classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Instead, they’re preaching unity and falling into line behind presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Punishment surely awaits.
As a kid growing up on movies of heroes and saints, I always imagined — hoped, I guess — that given the chance to stand up and do the courageous thing that I would answer the call.
In reality, only a few people had the courage to oppose the powerful forces of bigotry and hate.
Sometimes, injury or death was at stake. Other times it was simply bad politics to get involved. It was easier and safer to stay on the sidelines and let others carry the load.
Today, Republicans must decide if they will support Trump, the authoritarian, the bigot and the misogynist, the reality TV villain who handily beat the Republican primary field and is on his way to the GOP nomination.
For Democrats, it’s an easy call. There’s no risk to me or other progressive columnists or politicians for calling Trump what he is.
But it’s a different story for Republicans, fearful of the short-term political consequences of bucking their party and their nominee. They’re worried about angering an already angry Republican base, about offending donors or being labeled as disloyal — or even worse, as a RINO (Republican in Name Only).
In New Hampshire, endangered Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is trying to have it both ways, saying she will support Trump but not endorse him.
Maybe that’ll fool voters, but I doubt it.
In Maine, Rep. Bruce Poliquin has been cautious about a full-throated Trump endorsement in public but got caught privately supporting Trump and tooting his own horn about his influence in a post-Trump America.
As first reported by Bangor Daily News blogger Mike Tipping, Poliquin predicts that Trump will win the presidency and, incredibly, that the new president will turn to him to fill in his policy details.
“Trump is not a policy person. I don’t know what half his policies are,” said Poliquin. “He’s gonna say ‘We’re going in this direction. Poliquin, you fix this.’”
Sen. Susan Collins has also been careful with her comments about Trump, but has said that she would support the party’s nominee.
Collins is insanely popular in Maine. She’s popular with Democrats, Republicans and independents. And, while she doesn’t break with her party nearly as often as popularly perceived, she’s been willing to take some really hard votes against her party.
Politics is a team sport, and there’s always a risk to not being a team player, which is why I suspect Collins has supported LePage and other hard-right politicians in Maine and around the country.
But Trump is different. The way he treats women and the things he says about them have no place in American politics. He’s a dangerous demagogue who attacks people of different faiths and from different countries. He’s advocated for murder and torture.
As a freshman U.S. senator in 1950, Maine’s own Margaret Chase Smith stood up to the bully of her time, Sen. Joe McCarthy.
History remembers Smith and her “Declaration of Conscience” well; and it remembers the red-baiting, fear-mongering of McCarthy. One’s a hero; the other a villain.
According to a history of the events in the Senate, Smith was initially reluctant to speak against McCarthy and hoped that a senior senator would take the lead.
“This great psychological fear…spread to the Senate,” Smith said, “where a considerable amount of mental paralysis and muteness set in for fear of offending McCarthy.”
Ultimately, it was Smith’s burden to carry.
Smith was lauded and attacked. The Hartford Courant wrote: “This cool breeze of honesty from Maine can blow the whole miasma out of the nation’s soul.”
She was called names and received threats. McCarthy dismissed her and her supporters as “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs,” a Trumpish insult if ever there was one.
Now, Smith’s legacy casts a shadow over those who don’t follow her example.
For Republicans today, maybe there’s some risk to opposing Trump, but the greater danger is the judgment of history if they don’t.