The time to get off the Trump train is coming to a close
For three and a half years now, most Republicans have cowered in fear of Trump’s Twitter tirades. This fear was not without basis. Jeff Flake, John McCain’s junior colleague from Arizona, decided not to run for re-election in 2018, realizing that his principled criticisms of Trump would make him unelectable in the primary. That seat, by the way, went Democratic when it was won by Kyrsten Sinema. But Trump made sure it would not be occupied by a Republican critic of his.
Somewhat principled deficit hawk Jeff Corker faced a primary challenge from Trump loyalist Marsha Blackburn. He too decided to hang it up rather than take on the Trump cult in a primary.
In South Carolina, former governor and Appalachian Trail hiking enthusiast Mark Sanford was defeated in an embarrassing fashion in his primary. He too had taken principled stands against Trumpism, and he was rewarded by withering Twitter attacks. He could see the writing on the wall, calling himself a “dead man walking” in a Politico interview.
Nevada Senator Dean Heller started out as a Trump critic, but quickly realized that such steps could result in a primary challenge from the right. He quickly tacked in the other direction, becoming a consistent supporter of the President. The result? Trump helped clear the primary field for Heller, who went on to defeat by Democrat Jacky Rosen. He was the only Republican incumbent Senator to lose re-election in 2018.
The point that becomes clear from this history is that Trump commands enough support to ensure a Republican critic of his cannot win a primary. Given that his support among Republicans has only recently descended to a “low” of 80 percent, and that so many of his supporters are passionately enthusiastic, and that oftentimes primaries feature multiple candidates in the field, allowing someone to win without achieving 50 percent of the vote, having Trump attacking you on Twitter makes you unelectable in a Republican primary.
This factor has helped drive the intense loyalty Republican elected officials show Trump: it is driven solely by fear. Most congressional districts have become non-competitive in general elections due to gerrymandering, as have most states due to geographic polarization. The result is that most elections are determined by the winner of the primary, and Trump’s strength among Republicans guarantees supporters of his in Republican seats.
Or at least it used to. Cracks seem to be forming in Trump’s defenses. Even more telling than the recent decline of his support among Republicans is his recent defeats in Republican primaries. In North Carolina, 24-year old Madison Cawthorn defeated a Trump favorite in the race to replace Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief-of-Staff, in Congress. Similarly, Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie, a libertarian who Trump attacked as a “disaster for America” who should be ejected from the party. Massie easily won his primary.
Such defeats have empowered Trump critics, making them less afraid to stand up. More importantly, however, is Trump’s demonstrated inability to help in a general election campaign. Remember that in both Arizona and Nevada, states where Trump campaigned feverishly to support his candidates in the general election, those candidates went down to defeat. As a result, Republican office-holders looking at a general election coming up, and one in which Trump is now favored to lose, are backing away from him.
Consider New Hampshire, perhaps the only swing state in the northeast. Republican governor Chris Sununu announced he was not going to attend Trump’s planned rally. Similarly, endangered Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine has announced she will not be attending the Republican National Convention this year. She is joining other Republican Senators taking that step, although most of the others are retiring and so no longer feel any electoral pressure to kowtow to Trump.
Even more telling are the ads Republican Senators facing tough re-election fights are running. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and David Perdue (R-GA) have all unveiled ads not even mentioning the President. This omission is particularly telling for Perdue, who has been one of Trump’s most loyal lackeys.
If current trends continue, as we get closer to the election, we can expect to see even clearer separations being drawn as Senators start to fear for their own re-election more than they fear Trump. If Texas continues to be competitive, I think we can expect to see John Cornyn (R-TX) start to separate himself. We will likely see Martha McSally (R-AZ) take desperate steps to distinguish herself from her party’s leader who she has served so faithfully. And we should expect endangered senators Tillis, Gardner, and Collins to openly criticize Trump in desperate efforts to save their own seats. Ultimately, most politicians only care for one thing: themselves.
Ironically, after Trump is defeated (hopefully), many people who had been one-time supporters of his will quickly turn their backs on him. I remember hearing how in 1992, in polls taken after the election, far fewer people admitted to voting for George H.W. Bush than actually had. People always want to be with a winner, and right now, Trump isn’t looking like one.
Ultimately, though, we need to remember who was actually principled, and who is simply trying to jump on a train that has already left the station. While I have long disagreed with these individuals, I deeply respect people like George Conway, Bill Kristol, Nicolle Wallace and others who have openly criticized Trump despite their deep ties to the Republican party. I wonder how many of us Democrats would do the same. While I am sure we will disagree with these people in the future on policy, we need to remember that they are honorable people who deserve our respect.
At the same time, we need to remember the hacks who sold their souls to Trump, even if they later try to distance themselves. Susan Collins, Ted Cruz, William Barr and Paul Ryan all put their own careers ahead of the needs of our country, despite knowing better. For their cowardice and selfishness, these individuals deserve a special place in the political wilderness, never to be seen again in responsible society.