Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” He was referring specifically to congressional races, where responding to local issues from a national perspective – farm subsidy payments, Social Security checks, small business loans, etc. – was crucial to winning re-election. O’Neill’s aphorism still applies, but only to an extent, as House districts trend more blue or red over time.
Indeed, today most politics is national, not local; we can decry partisanship and polarization, but they are facts of contemporary political life. Sometimes, however, the price of partisanship is simply too high. This is one of those times.
Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as those in the Kansas Legislature, must come to terms with their unblinking support for President Donald Trump, whose excesses place him outside the mainstream of American politics. To be sure, he retains a 42 or 43 percent job approval rating and a hard core of supporters, but many of them question his fitness, capabilities, and policy preferences. For example, across several polls, more than 40 percent of Republicans think that immigrants strengthen the country.
If Republican legislators simply address their own partisan constituents’ preferences, it’s reasonable that they continue to back President Trump. But that type of representation – the all-politics-is-local kind implies that legislators are simply delegates who do what their voters wish reflects only one way to view representation. An equally significant perspective views legislators as “trustees,” who, once elected, use their own best judgment as they approach political issues.
In reality, lawmakers are both delegates and trustees, but this latter role needs to be taken seriously, especially with Trump. In short, Kansas’s national legislators, along with their state counterparts, must address contentions that Donald Trump is unfit for the position he holds and subsequently voice their concerns, even if on balance they support him.
At the national level, only Sen. Jerry Moran has expressed – sporadically – any serious concerns over Trump’s pronouncements and policies. Immigrant children separated from their parents? Nothing. Allowing Putin to interfere with our elections? Nada. Posting a grossly insensitive photo with a grin and a “thumbs up,” while Melania holds the orphaned child of two parents who died protecting him? Zip.
The list goes on, even when Kansas farmers are the target of unthinking tariff policies. Rep. Roger Marshall from the Big First congressional district reported an April conversation with the president as to the farm economy. He expressed his concerns, and the president responded. “Thanks to the farmers who are being patriots for getting us through this.” Subsequently, the impact on Kansas famers has only worsened but with little acknowledgment and no actions from Marshall or fellow representatives Estes and Watkins.
Even Pat Roberts, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, while complaining about the impact of tariffs, has done virtually nothing within the Republican-controlled Senate.
With Trump’s net approval rating currently standing at +5 percent in Kansas, legislators-as-delegates could argue that they are reflecting their constituents’ wishes. Still, representation is far more than that. Legislators must use their intelligence, experience, and proximity to power in assessing the overall fitness of a president to govern. And they have been silent, as the president cozies up to dictators and mass murderers, continually labels immigration an “invasion” and cannot provide even the appearance of empathy to a nation distraught over mass shootings.
Legislators, speak out.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.