Another day, another high-profile Republican declaring that they’ve finally had enough — with President Trump, but even more so with the people and the party that have enabled, celebrated and apologized for him. While 2016 saw a wave of people declaring themselves “Never Trumpers” and refusing to support their party’s presidential nominee, there’s something new happening: Republican figures declaring that they can no longer tolerate the party itself, because of what it has become since Trump seized control of it.
This time it’s Susan Bevan and Susan Cullman, the leaders of the Republican Majority for Choice, who write in the New York Times that after years of trying to carve out a space for pro-choice Republicans, they’re giving up and shutting their organization’s doors. “As pro-choice Republicans, we refuse to support a party that has rightly earned the labels anti-woman and anti-common sense,” they write, adding that Trump’s rise “is an inevitable result of the hostility to women within the Republican culture.”
That’s a complaint that could have been lodged anytime in the past couple of decades. But all kinds of Republicans are deciding that now is when things have finally become intolerable.
Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist who was one of the top officials in John McCain’s 2008 campaign, recently announced that he’s no longer a Republican. “Today I renounce my membership in the Republican Party,” he said. “It is fully the party of Trump.” George Will wrote a column last week urging his readers to vote for Democrats in this year’s elections, which is tantamount to encouraging Republicans to suspend their membership in the party. “The congressional Republican caucuses must be substantially reduced,” he wrote. “So substantially that their remnants, reduced to minorities, will be stripped of the Constitution’s Article I powers that they have been too invertebrate to use against the current wielder of Article II powers.”
There’s at least some evidence of similar misgivings being widely shared among the voters. That’s true despite the fact that Trump’s position in his party has never been more secure; in some polls, his approval rating among Republicans reaches 90 percent, nearly as well as Barack Obama ever did among Democrats and topped only by George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But one of the reasons is that there has been a small but measurable decline in the number of people who call themselves Republicans. Some voters are leaving the party, and those who are left are devoted to Trump.
So what does it mean to be a Republican these days? The basic four-part dogma that has long held together the GOP coalition — small government, low taxes, strong military and social conservatism — hasn’t changed. But it has faded into the background as Trump has swallowed up all the attention, as he is wont to do. You can now be a rock-ribbed conservative like Mark Sanford and lose a Republican primary, not for any ideological apostasy but simply because you haven’t been sufficiently slavish in your devotion to Trump. Trump is the party, and the party is Trump.
Though they sometimes lose faith in their leaders, Republicans have always been more susceptible to this kind of idolatry than Democrats. They tend to value hierarchy, order and respect for authority, which means that at the good times (and sometimes long after), they can come to an almost worshipful admiration for their current leader. To take the most obvious example, they still speak about Ronald Reagan as though he walked the earth without sin. And when Trump came along, so manifestly undeserving of adulation but demanding it every day, what did members of the party do? They lined right up.
Even if it did take a while. All those mainstream Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell gently expressing their misgivings made a bargain, with Trump and themselves. We’ll put up with him — his vulgar amorality, his ignorance, his impulsiveness — so long as we can get our agenda put in place. In practice, however, it turned out that agenda was awfully limited. It consisted of a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, a bunch of deregulation, and not much else. Sure, they’d love to obliterate the safety net, but that’s secondary. No wonder Ryan is sashaying off to what will no doubt be a seven- or eight-figure payday at some bank or hedge fund. Once the tax cut passed, his work was done.
If you’re a Republican, what is it you want now? Democrats have a lengthy, ambitious agenda they’ll try to enact whenever they take power again: universal health coverage, increase in the minimum wage, action on climate change, new protections for workers and consumers, a restoration of the international order Trump is working to destroy, and more. Republicans don’t have much. Most of them seem happy to gaze in adoration at the majesty of Trump, no matter what awful thing he does or says.
This is what seems to be driving away a small but meaningful number of Republicans: not just that Trump is doing things like ripping children from their parents’ arms at the border, but that so much of the Republican electorate loves him precisely because of it. You can be disgusted at the venom coursing off the podium at one of Trump’s rallies, but the real horror is in the crowd, lustily cheering every insult, every lie, every call to hate.
If you’re one of these Republican defectors, you probably realize that Trump didn’t create the ugliness that has driven you away; he merely revealed it. A healthier party would have spat him out like a piece of rancid meat. Instead, it swallowed heartily and proclaimed this the best thing it had ever tasted.