What’s stopping them from doing more? Identity politics.
At this point, the best — and probably only — way to stop Trumpism would be for a significant share of Republicans to align with the Democratic Party, at least temporarily. But here’s the problem: For many Trump-skeptical Republicans, both elite and rank-and-file, being a Republican, and definitely not a Democrat, is a part of their personal identity. And so far, too few have been willing to prioritize the health of the country over this attachment.
I’m pretty sure that people such as Bush, Cheney and Romney know that the pre-Trump Republican Party isn’t coming back. They can see that the GOP of 2021 is less about keeping the government small than, say, making it harder for Democratic-leaning Americans to vote and stopping Americans from learning about the lingering effects of slavery.
But none of them are taking steps that will effectively challenge Trumpism. After being ousted from her House leadership post, Cheney plans to raise money and campaign for anti-Trump Republicans in GOP primaries. That isn’t going to work, because most rank-and-file GOP voters back Trump-ish policies and rhetoric, including the “big lie.” Still, Cheney’s strategy isn’t as cowardly as voting for Condoleezza Rice in 2020 (Bush), saying you won’t vote for Trump but not endorsing Joe Biden (Romney) or voting for Trump and then complaining about him on your book tour (former House speaker John A. Boehner).
A much more useful approach would be for these Republicans to formally break with the GOP and announce that they will back Democratic candidates. If you prioritize preserving democracy above all (and you should), it shouldn’t be a hard choice to back a small-d democrat, even one who is a liberal Democrat. Our electoral structure is set up for two parties, so it’s just a waste of time to talk much about third-party efforts. The best way to force a party to reform itself is to crush it in successive elections.
And there is a real opportunity for that. Polls suggest that around 20 percent of Republican voters are wary of the Trumpian direction of the party. That’s about 9 percent of the electorate overall. If that 9 percent strategically aligned with the Democrats, it would put the Democrats at around 60 percent of the national vote — enough to turn states such as Florida and North Carolina blue while boosting the party toward victory in Ohio and Texas, too.
I suspect Bush, Cheney, Romney and other anti-Trump Republicans know that is the best strategy. But identity politics is getting in the way.
The term “identity politics” has become a pejorative, deployed to suggest that Democrats are too focused on people of color and women. But political scientists say that one of the strongest identities in America today is which of the two parties a person supports and, perhaps even more so, which one they don’t.
Major figures such as Romney and Bush are probably even more tied to being Republican than rank-and-file GOP voters. Bush, Cheney and Romney all were literally born into the Republican establishment, and the party in turn made Bush a president, Romney a presidential nominee and Cheney a congresswoman. People tend to cling to things they think are core to their identities and rationalize those choices. So, many Trump skeptics who remain Republicans say it’s because the Democrats are going too far left. But this is simply motivated reasoning. If you desperately want to remain a Republican, sure, you can complain about Democratic spending plans or New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But in reality, it’s more moderate Democrats such as Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) who run the party — and anyway, unlike Trump, Ocasio-Cortez embraces core democratic values.
Bush, Cheney and Romney might look to the model of Tim Miller, a 39-year-old who worked on John McCain’s and Jeb Bush’s presidential campaigns. After the 2020 election, Miller wrote an essay declaring that he was leaving the Republican Party and, for now, backing Democratic candidates. Miller told me recently that he had long expected that some of the Republicans he knew would skip his wedding — but because Miller was marrying a man, not because he had opposed the Republicans’ presidential candidate.
In his piece, Miller described how hard it was to leave behind his identity of “Republican operative.” I’m sure other Trump-skeptical Republicans feel similarly torn. I know I am asking them to do something hard — I suspect that being a Republican is as central to their identities as being Black is to mine or being Muslim is to people who practice Islam.
But your party affiliation actually isn’t that hard to change, and it should if the party itself changes — particularly if that party is pushing your country in a dangerous direction.