Put yourself in the mind of a red-state Republican senator. He or she might believe that Trump is a buffoon, a huckster, a rogue. They might believe he is a man-child like Tarzan, raised in the jungle and knowing naught but its rules. They might believe he is corrupt, impressed by flattery and unknowing of right from wrong. Yet they still might conclude their duty compels them to maintain him in office.
That is because senators are first and foremost representatives of their states’ people. That was the 17th Amendment’s purpose; the direct election of senators by the voters, not the state legislatures, was meant to ensure that senators would be beholden to the people’s views, not those of an unaccountable elite. And polls currently show that supermajorities of Republicans oppose both an impeachment inquiry and Trump’s removal from office.
“Country over party” types surely find this unconvincing, but think about it from another point of view. When have deep-blue-state Democrats been asked to do something similar? Certainly not during the Clinton impeachment proceedings, when many Democrats were privately disgusted at his behavior.
This double standard is at the heart of why Republican voters remain attached to Trump even as many see him for what he is. They see opponents asking them to sacrifice things they value for a greater good, but the other side is never asked to do the same. They ponder, rightly, whether “country over party” is just a slogan to trick them into surrendering the keys to their castle.
That’s not an overstatement. Many Republicans back Trump only because they see him as someone who stands between them and a loony left or a return to feckless orthodox Republicanism. Trump won despite the fact that many of these people thought he wasn’t fit for the presidency because they were afraid. They were afraid that their religious liberty would be curtailed or that their freedoms would be eroded. They chose the safest port in the storm even as they recognized the port’s warden might rob them in turn.
Those fears have only increased since Trump’s election. Republican voters find themselves assailed at every turn as racists and deplorables. They see Democrats and their Never Trump lackeys give no quarter and admit no error as they, like Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” stop at nothing to bring their prey to purported justice. They do not believe that it is Trump the Javerts really seek; they believe they are on trial, and they do not intend to convict themselves.
Republicans also look at the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left in horror. The nomination race so far has been a political version of “hold my beer,” as candidate after candidate tries to outdo the others in showing fealty to progressive shibboleths. Even some who were Never Trumpers have joined in the chorus. Republicans are even more afraid of a Democratic victory than they were three years ago.
“Country over party” types should see this and try to build bridges to Republicans genuinely troubled by Trump’s antics. They are asking Republicans to make a serious sacrifice in handing over Trump; they should be willing to sacrifice something of value to themselves to show good faith. Could, for example, former vice president Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tone down the anti-Republican rhetoric, particularly the accusations of racism and bigotry? Could they offer more moderate policy demands, such as on religious liberty or immigration? “Country over party” works in both directions.
Of course, none of these considerations matter if Trump’s opponents consider Republican views illegitimate and beyond the bounds of democratic discourse. If conservatism is racism, if traditional Christianity is bigotry, if capitalism is planet-destroying tyranny, then obviously there can be no cause in common with those whose destruction one seeks.
One hopes “country over party” advocates don’t believe this. How they reach out to Republican voters over the next few months will be crucial to determining whether the president is removed from office. A majority will not desert Trump — even Richard Nixon was backed by about half of Republicans on the eve of his resignation — but moving a significant minority is possible and crucial.
But if those efforts are never seriously made, Republicans will remain adamantly against removal. And Republican senators will be acting on high principle by following their constituents’ wishes.