Frustrated by his Republican colleagues’ refusal to vote on his amendment to roll back President Trump’s tariffs, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) fessed up on Wednesday: “We’re in a strange place. It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? It’s not a good place for any party to have a cult-like situation as it relates to a President that happens to be purportedly of the same party.” It’s even worse when the cult leader is dishonest, irrational and erratic; those who follow him quickly appear dishonest, irrational and erratic.
Corker continued: “To have an administration that wakes up every day on an ad hoc basis just making stuff up as they go along with no coherency to it — I think us having to weigh in on that would actually cause them to have to think about what they’re doing versus, ‘Well, I’m upset with X today so I’ll do this.’ ”
There is something refreshing about having the Republican Party’s cowardice out in the open, acknowledged by its own members. The pretense that they were upholding their oaths and/or their constituents was too much to bear.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who lost in a GOP primary on Tuesday, told my colleague Karen Tumulty that his fellow Republicans “don’t want the tweet that I got last night.” He added, “There’s no motivation like self-motivation.” He was referring to Trump’s taunting tweet three hours before the polls closed, complaining that “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble.” Now, we do not know if that tweet really turned the tide, but the perception surely is that Republicans will lose if they break with Trump.
Sanford, a principled conservative, said after his defeat that he didn’t regret his actions. (“It may have cost me an election, in this case, but I stand by every one of those decisions to disagree with the president.”) Not every Republican — certainly not House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — is willing to take that risk by crossing Trump. In that respect, they are every bit as unprincipled as the president.
The Republican National Committee chairman Ronna Romney McDaniel added a creepy, totalitarian note. “Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” she tweeted. Pyongyang or Moscow or Beijing propagandists would be proud. You must embrace our leader, or else!
The result of Republicans’ boot-licking , naturally, is to encourage Trump’s lying, erratic behavior and delusional thinking. Trump critic Rick Wilson, directing his barbs to Trump, writes, “Nothing you do matters to this Congress. No matter what damage you inflict on our economy, our alliances, trade, our stature in the world, our role as an exemplar of democratic values, our ability to serve as an honest broker in the international community, and our security, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will lay supine before you.” As, the GOP Congress becomes more reticent, Trump becomes more dangerous.
Several aspects of the GOP cult are noteworthy.
First, sticking by Trump is no guarantee of success either. After all, candidates backed by Trump (i.e., Luther Strange, Roy Moore, Rick Saccone, Ed Gillespie) also lost. Republicans are obsessed with the instances in which a Trump heretic lost, but they don’t consider whether those candidates lost for reasons unrelated to Trump.
Second, many faithful Republicans running in competitive seats in either purple and blue states will get wiped out if they cling to Trump and defend his policies — including an unpopular tax plan, cruel immigration policies, etc. That’s why you see so many races in the “Toss Up” or “Lean Democrat” column for November’s midterm elections. In many places other than deep red America, an “R” after one’s name is a badge of shame, not of honor.
Third, the dichotomy between what Republicans want and what the country at large wants is becoming so vast that it’s difficult for Republicans to run toward Trump in the primary and then away from him in the general election. They wind up looking like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — unprincipled and insincere.
Fourth, if many of those endangered Republicans lose, the Trump party left behind will be more radical, nativist, protectionist and irrational (because they blindly follow an irrational president). Thanks to Trump’s the-base-is-everything strategy, the GOP will become even less racially and geographically diverse. At that point, candidates in the general election who can appeal to the other 60 percent to 65 percent of the electorate would be in good shape.
Fifth, with some exceptions, Democratic primary voters haven’t gone far left and, therefore, have preserved (they hope) the chance to win in mixed districts. Conversely, if they fail in November, the forces behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will go nuts and insist the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominee come from the far left.
Finally, as we see hyperpolarization play out, it may be that polarization will get worse. At some point, though, the double- and triple-down, pro-Trump Republicans will lose governing majorities and will not be able to get enough electoral votes at the presidential level to secure the White House. It’s precisely for this reason that many despondent Republicans want their party blown out in November. It’s not until they lose and lose big, these anti-Trump Republicans figure, that Trump’s grip on their party will end. Unfortunately for them, by the time you get to that point, it may have made itself so distasteful to so many voters that redemption won’t come for many election cycles.