George Stephanopoulos asks New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu 

George Stephanopoulos asked New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu 

by Prof. Heather Cox Richardson

Letters from an American

This Week, host George Stephanopoulos, “Just to sum up,”

“You support [Trump] for president even if he’s convicted in [the] classified documents [case]. You support him for president even though you believe he contributed to an insurrection. You support him for president even though you believe he’s lying about the last election. You support him for president even if he’s convicted in the Manhattan case. I just want to say, the answer to that is yes, correct?”

Sununu answered: “Yeah. Me and 51% of America.”

AB: I guess integrity goes out the window when it comes to politics and principle.

Aside from its overstatement of Trump’s national support, Sununu’s answer illustrated the triumph of politics over principle. Earlier in the interview, Sununu explained that he could swallow all of Trump’s negatives because he wanted a Republican administration. Saying . . .

“This is about politics.”  

AB: I lack for words to politely say “this politician is a coward and a fraud who does not belong in any public office. It is not about politics, it is about lacking a backbone to tell the truth.

Sununu is part of the Republican faction that focuses on cutting taxes and slashing regulations. Trump has promised further tax cuts. Biden has said he will raise taxes on the very wealthy and on corporations to make sure the nation does not have to cut Social Security benefits and Medicare. Republicans have suggested they will make those cuts to balance the budget, although at least 90% of the current budget deficit is not due to emergencies like Covid.

The deficit is a result of tax cuts under George W. Bush and Trump.  

Sununu may be embracing Trump for his fiscal policies. But there is possibly another dynamic at play in the shift of Republican leaders behind Trump. As Thomas Edsall outlined in the New York Times on April 10 in a piece about donors, they appear to be afraid of retaliation if they don’t join his team. Certainly he has worked to instill that fear, warning in January that anyone who contributed to Haley’s campaign “from this moment forth, will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp. We don’t want them, and will not accept them.”

Trump has been very clear that he intends to use the power of the state to crush those who he feels have been insufficiently supportive of him. There is every reason to take him at his word, as he tried to do exactly that during his presidency. He used the Internal Revenue Service to harass former FBI director James Comey—who refused to kill the investigation into the ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian operatives as Trump demanded—and Andrew McCabe, who took over as acting FBI director after Trump fired Comey. 

He demanded investigations and indictments of former president Barack Obama, then former vice president Joe Biden, former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as well as a Democratic lawyer. Former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, whom Trump appointed after he fired Preet Bharara, recalled:

“Throughout my tenure as U.S. attorney, Trump’s Justice Department kept demanding I use my office to aid them politically. I kept declining in ways just tactful enough to keep me from being fired.” 

That dynamic already appears to be at work as people are obeying in advance. On April 10, Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer David Hume Kennerly resigned from the board of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation after his fellow trustees declined to present the Gerald R. Ford Medal for Distinguished Public Service to former Wyoming representative Liz Cheney out of concern a future President Trump would retaliate against the organization by taking away its tax-exempt status. Kennerly wrote . . .

“The historical irony was completely lost on you. Gerald Ford became president, in part, because Richard Nixon had ordered the development of an enemies list and demanded his underlings use the IRS against those listed. That’s exactly what the executive committee fears will happen if there’s a second coming of Donald Trump.” 

Harking back to Ford’s service in the World War II Navy, Kennerly continued:

“Did [Lieutenant] Gerald Ford meet the enemy head-on because he thought he wouldn’t get killed? No. He did it despite that possibility. This executive committee, on the other hand, bolted before any shots were fired. You aren’t alone. Many foundations, organizations, corporations, and other entities are caught up in this tidal wave of timidity and fear that’s sweeping this country. I mistakenly thought we were better than that. This is the kind of acquiescent behavior that leads to authoritarianism. President Ford most likely would have come out even tougher and said that it leads directly to fascism.”

As Princeton sociology professor Kim Lane Scheppele told Edsall, those still operating under the impression that they will curry favor with a dictator are painfully unaware of how dictators actually operate: like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, if he is returned to power, Trump will use the power of the state to squeeze the wealthy as well as his political opponents, threatening them with investigations, audits, regulation—even criminal charges—unless they do as they are told. 

But Sununu’s cynical announcement that he would destroy American democracy if it meant his party could stay in power is not only a misguided approach to trying to appease a dictator. It is a profound rejection of the meaning of American democracy: that we all are created equal and have a right to a say in our government. Throughout our history, Americans have found those principles so fundamental to human self-determination that they have given their lives for them. 

It’s hard to miss that Sununu’s statement fell on the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who stood at the cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where those who had died to defend the United States in July 1863 were buried and asked his fellow Americans to rededicate themselves “to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”