After my grandmother, Irene Rennie, died in 1971, we were sorting her possessions, notable for a vast collection of hats, when I found a "We Want Willkie" button in a desk drawer. My father explained that Wendell Willkie’s improbable 1940 campaign for president had inspired his lifelong Republican mother’s first foray into volunteering for a political campaign.
She was that year assisting with the local Bundles for Britain organization sending packages of personal essentials to families facing the Nazi hordes. Willkie was the only Republican presidential contender who supported providing aid to the British as they stood alone after the fall of France that spring.
Eighty years ago, darkness had descended on much of the world with worse to come. Americans were divided over the prospect of assisting our democratic allies in any way that would draw us into a war with Hitler’s Germany.
President Roosevelt, the Democrat seeking a third term, and Willkie knew Hitler cared little for American public opinion. They understood the inevitability of war, only the time and place were left to be revealed. The two rivals struck the most remarkable agreement in presidential campaign history. They would unite to fight for freedom’s survival while competing for the presidency. Willkie would not oppose Roosevelt’s plan to send besieged Britain 50 American destroyers from the First World War. Willkie would provide the critical endorsement to win congressional approval of Roosevelt’s proposal to create the nation’s first peacetime draft.
My political roots run through four generations of that Republican Party. I served in the legislature as a Republican from Democratic-dominated districts for eight years. What the past several years have revealed about the contemporary Republican Party remains disorienting to witness and dangerous for America and the world.
The ascent of Donald Trump has transformed the Republican Party into a confederation of taunts, insults and suspicions. It reduced its platform this year to whatever the Dear Leader says. Its ranks have a growing number of adherents to the most rancid conspiracy theories, urged on by Trump. He embraces dictators and disdains our democratic allies. He has traduced our reputation among the billions who look to us for leadership in the community of nations. Freedom’s most stalwart powerful national leader is not Donald Trump, it’s German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
When a president does not instinctively give full-throated support to the peaceful transition of power after an election, he is unfit for the office. This calamity did not occur by chance. Trump recognized and exploited a taste in America for perpetual grievance. Republicans who could have fought Trump from within chose surrender and the stain of infamy. They flinched because fealty to liberal values risked Trump’s relentless ire. Freedom, enterprise, and the rule of law fell into disrepute among those quiet Republicans. "Haven’t seen what he wrote," remains their sad mantra.
As the calamity of a global pandemic arrived in March, Republican officials could not conceal their habitual cowardice, fear of Trump and his braying disciples stilled their voices when the crisis required defiance. As thousands of Americans began to die from the coronavirus, Trump meanwhile gloried in the ratings of his nutty daily briefings. His pronouncements were often detached from the reality hundreds of millions of Americans were enduring each day. It would disappear and be gone by Easter, he insisted.
While trying to bamboozle the public through his peculiar reality, Trump, we now know, was confessing to famed reporter Bob Woodward that the virus was far more lethal than the flu. Trump misjudged the American people. He mistook his instincts for ours. We would not have panicked from candor. The virus was met by a prolonged surge of sacrifice, kindness and attention to one another.
At last the reckoning nears. Polls and other indicators point to a decisive defeat for Trump and his ghastly courtiers. Some talented Republicans will be among the carnage they brought on themselves through indifference.
A Joe Biden victory will affirm that perpetual scorn and malice are not virtues in an American president. Biden’s win should inspire a sustained moment of national unity as when FDR sent the defeated Willkie to London as a demonstration of solidarity. Whoever is left among the most craven Republican officials have an obligation to emulate Willkie in repairing the democratic norms Trump assaulted as they watched in silence.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. This piece was written for The Hartford Courant.