One might have predicted that those most likely to break with Trump would be the senators facing difficult races in closely divided states, such as Sens. Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona and Susan Collins in Maine. But that hasn’t happened; for every swing voter they might entice with a show of independence, there are more Republicans they risk antagonizing.
That shows how complicated self-preservation can be. But for those Republicans less worried about their immediate survival and wondering where they’ll find themselves if Trump loses in November, now is as good a time as any to start establishing their personal post-Trump narrative. And every Republican will need one.
To see a particularly shrewd bit of positioning in action, let’s examine the conflict playing out between Trump and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who might run for president in 2024.
When Trump issued a series of legally questionable executive orders over the weekend in an attempt to claim he was saving the economy, Sasse issued a statement saying, “The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” which he surely knew would attract a personal attack from the president. And that’s precisely what happened:
Trump did indeed endorse Sasse last year, but it’s doubtful Sasse got his party’s nomination because of it. Nevertheless, the president is remembering things at least somewhat correctly. At the time, Sasse had muted his previous criticisms of Trump, most notably giving a pass on the executive overreach that Sasse claims to abhor by voting to uphold Trump’s farcical declaration of a “national emergency” so he could divert military funds to his vanity border wall.
But now things are different. Sasse has few worries about winning his own race in November, and a Trump loss looks more likely than ever. Sasse worked for George W. Bush, so he surely remembers how, when Bush left office in disgrace in 2009, Republicans couldn’t run away from him fast enough. “I never liked him anyway” was the prevailing sentiment, as so many in the GOP insisted that because Bush hadn’t brought down government spending he wasn’t a true conservative. In truth, Bush had become a political loser, and they had to rewrite their own histories to avoid being tainted by his failures.
That need will be even more acute when Trump leaves office. At least with Bush they could say he was an honorable man who did objectionable things (even if they didn’t actually object when he did them). Trump, on the other hand, is not only a failure but the most corrupt and repugnant human being to ever sit in the Oval Office. Especially if he loses badly to Biden, the GOP will need to craft its post-Trump future, and the more any politician can characterize himself or herself as free of the moral compromises that became so common in this era, the better.
So this is the perfect opportunity for a timely objection to executive overreach, which will also provide a marker you will be able to point to in the future — when you’re playacting faux outrage at President Biden — as evidence of your firm commitment to conservative principle.
But it has to be handled carefully. Republicans can’t simply denounce Trump; they must raise an objection while conveying loyalty, to be simultaneously pro-Trump and just anti-Trump enough so that they can say they stood up for what is right.
So regarding Trump’s attack on him, Sasse responded with a rather obsequious letter on Twitter, gently noting his belief that despite all his affection and admiration for Trump, “No president — whether named Obama or Trump or Biden or AOC — has unilateral power to rewrite immigration law or to cut taxes or to raise taxes.”
Lest you make the mistake of thinking Sasse is noble, you should understand that depending on the moment, he can sound like an exceptionally principled conservative or an exceedingly insincere poser. He’s a guy with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a PhD from Yale who trades in the most simple-minded populism. He attacks “Washington” — as a former administration official — and pretends that all our political problems have simple solutions if we could just get past partisan bickering, despite knowing full well that the parties have profound differences about how to handle complex problems.
But Sasse is a canny politician, one preparing himself for an uncertain future. At this point, it’s impossible to know whether the party — especially its 2024 presidential primary voters — will want to turn away from Trump completely, or if it will still be necessary to show that you were on Team Trump when it mattered.
Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who started as Trump opponents then debased themselves by turning into utter lickspittles, will look pathetic and weak. But a strong Trump critic such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will probably be seen as disloyal, even if everything he said about Trump was true.
The alternative if you want to lead the post-Trump GOP is to skate on both sides of that line, finding moments to make a visible show of your independence while not actually doing anything to impede Trump’s disastrous mismanagement of the country. There’s little to admire about it, but it’s certainly the smart play. Which, on both counts, makes it perfect for someone like Ben Sasse.