Wisconsin Republican convention (copy)

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher is pictured at the annual Republican Party of Wisconsin convention in July 2020.

The best measure of the degeneration of the Republican Party from its noble beginnings in Ripon to its current state of degeneracy is found in what passes for a “responsible Republican.”

The term “responsible Republican” once described members of the Grand Old Party who were willing to put the common good ahead of rank partisanship. These were the Republicans like U.S. Rep. Bill Steiger, who broke with Richard Nixon during the Watergate era. Or former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who told the social conservatives to take a hike and signed the nation’s first state law guaranteeing gay and lesbian rights. Or state Sen. Dale Schultz, who refused to go along with Scott Walker’s assaults on labor rights and democracy.

It was possible to disagree with a Steiger, a Dreyfus or a Schultz on any number of issues, while still recognizing their sense of decency. And their willingness to act upon that sense.

They were not perfect. But they were capable of acting responsibly.

You still hear the term “responsible Republican” tossed around these days. But it has been sapped of its former meaning. Today, the phrase is employed so casually that it has come to refer to anyone who is not standing next to Donald Trump and screaming about “stolen” elections. Unfortunately, the so-called “responsible Republicans” of today are, for the most part, Trump enablers who prefer to do their service to the orange-one-in-chief without the risks involved in mask-less appearances at super-spreader events.

Case in point: U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher.

The ambitious Republican congressman from northeast Wisconsin tries to portray himself as a mainstream kind of guy who avoids the more deranged excesses of his party. A former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer with degrees from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, the National Intelligence University and Georgetown University, he’s the sort of good soldier who once would have worked in the Defense Department under Dwight Eisenhower or the State Department under Gerald Ford.

But the days of Eisenhower’s “modern Republicanism” are long gone, as are the days of Ford’s affable Midwestern moderation. Now, the GOP is a mirror reflection of Trump.

This is so obviously the case that it’s bizarre to hear pundits say Gallagher would, if he came back to Wisconsin as governor, whip the Legislature into shape and govern as a 21st century version of Tommy Thompson. Or were he to replace conspiracy theorist Sen. Ron Johnson, that he would serve in the U.S. Senate as the sort of Republican Democrats could work with.

Gallagher may well run for governor or the U.S. Senate at some point — perhaps even in short order, if Johnson stands down. But he has made it clear he lacks the fortitude to take on Trump, or Trumpism.

The congressman from the Fox River Valley confirmed his cowardice once more last Thursday, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold longtime Trump advisor Steve Bannon in contempt for defying a subpoena from the committee investigating the Trump-instigated Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Bannon is surely contemptable. An ally of the European far-right parties that have spun a slurry of racism, xenophobia and wild-eyed nationalism into a new politics of neo-fascism, he makes no secret of his determination to steer the U.S. on an authoritarian path. Trump has been his vehicle for this project. The former president entered politics as a damaged human being who desperately wanted power but didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. Bannon’s the Svengali who turned a self-absorbed reality-TV star into cheerleader for the deadly violence that rocked Charlottesville in 2017 and, eventually, into an instigator of insurrection.

As Jan. 6 approached, Bannon was so intimately engaged with the preparations that his public pronouncements anticipated the chaos with eerie precision. “Mr. Bannon’s own public statements make clear he knew what was going to happen before it did, and, thus, he must have been aware of — and may well have been involved in — the planning of everything that played out on that day,” explained U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, a member of the Jan. 6 committee, in her remarks urging a vote to hold Bannon in contempt. “The American people deserve to know what he knew and what he did.”

That was a responsible statement by Cheney, one of the most committed conservatives in the House. But she did not get many takers from her fellow Republicans on Thursday. Only seven Republicans voted with Cheney and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the other GOP member of the Jan. 6 committee, to hold Bannon in contempt.

That vote separated the responsible Republicans from the rest of their party. And Gallagher cast his lot with the extremists.

There will be those who suggest Gallagher was just going along to get along in the Republican Party that has emerged under Trump. But if the Wisconsin congressman lacks the courage to join a bipartisan majority of House members in holding Bannon to contempt, how can anyone expect him to do the right thing when it comes time to stand up to Trump?

Every honest observer knows the answer to that question.

After the insurrection, when the evidence of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors was on full display, Gallagher joined Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz in rejecting calls for Trump’s impeachment.

Gallagher has now gone from defending Trump to defending Bannon. Don’t lie to yourself. He is not a responsible Republican. He is never going to be a responsible Republican.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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