Tribalism runs deep among Republicans, even in our Land of Steady Habits. For evidence, look no further than the flap between Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Donald Trump. It is a story about how Republicans take Democrats to the wall when Democrats do wrong. But if Republicans do wrong, well, it can’t be that bad. After all, they’re Republicans.
The story began when Blumenthal met with Trump’s nominee for U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch. They convened as Trump blasted a “so-called judge” in Washington state who issued a restraining order against Trump’s decree to close the border to immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations. (A court of appeals upheld the order.) It’s a pattern: the president tends to attack judges who stand in his way, thus threatening to trigger a constitutional crisis.
Blumenthal cannily asked Gorsuch for his thoughts on Trump’s authoritarian behavior. Gorsuch reportedly said his attacks were “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” It was later independently confirmed that Gorsuch said exactly that.
Even so, the president accused Blumenthal of dissembling. He tweeted: “Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him.”
A couple of things. One, Trump is saying Blumenthal lied during this 2010 run to replace Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd about his Vietnam service, so can’t be trusted now. This is coming from a president who has little respect for the authority of facts. This is not a partisan statement. It has been empirically demonstrated on numerous occasions. It’s one thing to say someone is lying when you have ample credibility of your own. It’s another when you have close to no credibility with anyone who’s not a Republican.
Two, Trump is suggesting that Blumenthal exploited for political gain the appearance of having served in Vietnam in order to redirect focus of the news to Blumenthal and away from the fact that Trump’s own nominee took umbrage with his attacks on the judiciary, something that along with compulsive lying further undermines Trump’s credibility. In other words, as the president accused Blumenthal of dissembling, the president did his share of dissembling.
But was he right about Dick? Yes, and I don’t think any sane person should argue otherwise. Blumenthal let people believe for a long time that he’d been to Vietnam. The suggestion came from very selection omissions. Instead of saying he served “in the Vietnam era” (which is true), he’d leave out “the” and “era” to say he “served in Vietnam.” In doing this, Blumenthal walked a line between truth and non-truth, thus benefiting from the appearance of having served.
Blumenthal was wrong. Crazy wrong. But he repented and voters forgave him. That must have left a rather bitter taste in the mouths of Connecticut Republicans. In their view, lying about one’s service in the American military is a mortal sin for which there are no second chances.
I imagine that’s why Andy Wainwright, of the state GOP, said that Blumenthal “deserves to be publicly shamed on a national level.”
But let’s not go overboard. Remember who’s doing the shaming here. Like Blumenthal, Trump got a series of draft deferments to get his education. But unlike Blumenthal, he never served in any capacity. (Dick was in the stateside Marine Reserve for six years.) Trump got a medical deferment for “heel spurs.” When asked later which heel was in question, he couldn’t remember. Trump has said being in an elite military prep school as a teen was like being in the military. He has said not contracting a venereal disease in his youth was like not getting killed in the Vietnam War.
This is in addition to the contempt Trump has shown for anyone who challenges him, even if that person is supposed to be immune to all criticism in the eyes of Republicans who venerate men and women of the armed forces. Trump famously questioned the integrity of a Muslim family who lost a son fighting in Iraq. He questioned even John McCain’s heroism. “He was a war hero because he was captured,” Trump once said. “I like heroes who weren’t captured.”
Yes, Dick once played loosey-goosey with his record. He was wrong. He repented. Voters forgave him (his reelection last year was a landslide). I understand why Connecticut Republicans find that distasteful, but they shouldn’t let their resentment of Blumenthal cloud their judgment of Trump.
The president’s behavior is indefensible.
Best not to try, even if he’s a Republican.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident.