President Trump’s delusional outburst Monday claiming to have accomplished more than any president other than FDR at this stage in his presidency and the fawning praise recited by Cabinet members (in their best imitation of the Politburo) serve to remind us that this is not a normal presidency, and will never be one. On the day that another court ruled against Trump’s travel ban, a passable health-care reform bill is nowhere in sight and little appetite exists for a mammoth tax cut (another one beyond the America Health Care Act) with correspondingly mammoth debt, we can see just how divorced Trump has become from the reality of his failing presidency. That leaves many political watchers to wonder aloud why Republicans stick by the president.
It’s not like Hillary Clinton would be president, the argument goes. They’d get a sane, much more conservatively-doctrinaire president in Mike Pence. They’d no longer have to defend outlandish behavior, minimize his weird affection for dictators or turn a blind eye toward conflicts of interest. GOP lawmakers wouldn’t have to run with him as a ball and chain around their ankles in 2018. And Democrats, who have not had to devise much in the way of an agenda would have to rewrite their entire 2018 and 2020 scripts. From a self-serving perspective, continual defense of him seems downright nutty.
All of that is absolutely accurate but ignores a few salient facts.
First, unlike Senate and House Republicans during Watergate, there are few genuine leaders of principle whose sense of propriety is offended by Trump. The moral and intellectual quality of the current crew of Republicans pales in comparison to the type of Republicans who finally told Richard Nixon the jig was up. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.), who went to the White House, have few if any equals in today’s House and Senate. Those who do have the stature to move against Trump don’t necessarily have the base of the party, and those who have visions of the presidency dancing in their heads have been among the most craven apologists (e.g., Sen Tom Cotton (Ark.), Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.)) for Trump. In short, the charge that Republicans by and large put party above country is entirely valid. They’d rather let the country careen from disaster to disaster and scandal to scandal than stick their necks out.
Second, elected Republicans by and large cower in the shadow of Fox Non-News hosts, talk-radio opportunists and right-wing interest groups. They fear noticeable distancing from Trump will prompt the vultures of the right to swoop down upon them, leaving only bones behind. So long as the characters who populate the right stick with Trump, elected Republicans, sadly, won’t lead. The tribal identification with party has robbed most in the GOP of common sense, good judgment and even patriotism.
Third, given the first two factors, Republicans continue to rationalize support for Trump, or at least line-straddling. Maybe this will all die down. They could still get tax reform. Once the president is forced out, the party will descend in chaos. Hey, gerrymandering will protect the House majority!
Finally, politicians read the polls. They see Republicans by and large still support the president. They have yet (at least until Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election on June 20) to lose a House seat in the Trump era. For now abandoning Trump seems more risky than sticking by him, especially if one has no concern for appearing like a slavish partisan.
What if Trump decides to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, as Trump confidante Chris Ruddy, chief executive of NewsMax, said Trump is considering? That would spark a good deal of outrage in the press and among independents and Democrats. It might even cost Trump some support from sensible Republicans. A wholesale mutiny among Republicans however would not be guaranteed — even then. That reality gives one a full appreciation for how reluctant Republicans are to step out of line — even when it comes to defending an independent investigation by a man many of them praised.
In sum, the sad answer is that these Republicans won’t act out of principle, won’t challenge the right-wing echo chamber and won’t give up the delusion that they can get parts of their agenda through. Given truth serum, nearly all would prefer Pence to replace Trump; they just cannot summon the courage to make that happen. I suppose some undeniable smoking gun either of Trump’s Russian complicity or obstruction could force their hand, but increasingly it looks like the only thing that will convince them to abandon Trump is the certain prospect of political ruin. Even more likely, they’ll have to lose the House in 2018 before they realize Trump is politically radioactive.