The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time for Republicans to save themselves

(Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

By mid-February 2016, it was clear that some kind of collective Republican action would be needed to keep Donald Trump from winning the nomination. Instead, everyone stood around hoping that someone else would do the job for them. This was an error they repeated many times in the ensuing years, keeping quiet about outrage after outrage, passing up two separate chances to remove him from power and ensure he could never run again.

It is long past time for the GOP to have a Dr. Phil moment: How’s that working for you?

For six years, Trump has been systematically — okay, unsystematically — wrecking the party. At every juncture, Republicans made the same excuses for keeping quiet about it: The media was biased, so no need to actually deal with the outrageous substance of what was going on in the Oval Office. Besides, Trump’s voters would primary any Republican who stood up to him. Better to quietly work against him where possible, and otherwise bide their time until Trump passed from the scene.

Reality check, friends. Donald Trump isn’t going away unless you make him. And unless you make him, he will continue sullying the party with his scandals, sacrificing its standards and, increasingly, its electoral chances on the altar of his rapacious ego. However temporarily expedient cooperation might seem, in the long run, it’s the most dangerous course.

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The Justice Department has photographs of classified documents on the Mar-a-Lago carpet, and Team Trump’s best response is to mutter about the deep state and complain that the items in the photographed were arranged to exaggerate how feckless Trump had been. I’m sure that plays well with base voters who are tuned into the Republican excuse factory, but it’s not going to make much of an impression with independent voters who already don’t think much of the previous president, and voted for Joe Biden to get a break from all the drama.

If Republicans do what they clearly want to — once again join in the chorus of “Whatabout Hillary” or pretend the latest scandal isn’t happening — they are effectively deciding to let Trump have control of the party until he dies, or becomes so diminished by old age that he is no longer capable of meddling. Individually, that might even be the rational choice. But collectively, it’s party suicide.

Trump is already turning GOP membership into a single-issue referendum on Trump: How far will you go to defend his erratic, self-centered and pointlessly belligerent behavior? How slavishly will you proclaim the lie that Trump actually won the 2020 election? This litmus test has alienated a lot of moderate voters, and produced a lot of weak, inexperienced candidates who don’t understand how elections work, and look likely to lose them come November.

This is one major reason that the “red wave” that seemed to be shaping up earlier this year is now looking more and more like a ripple — possibly even a mildly good year for Democrats, despite a troubled economy and record-low presidential approval ratings.

Expect more such disappointments as long as Trump remains at the party helm. By the time he exits the scene, the “Don’t Poke the Bear” caucus might well inherit a rump party optimized for flattering his vanity rather than winning elections. So if Republicans would like there to be life after Trump, Republican politicians will have to take firm action to save the party now. That means making a concerted move against the former president, and sticking to it even when his voters get mad and things get scary.

So abandon all hope, Republicans, of some deus ex machina. Stop hoping Trump won’t run — he’s obviously planning to — or that some other Republican can save the party by beating him in the 2024 primary without you having to risk Trump’s ire. That hero you’re waiting for can’t overcome Trump’s devoted fan base and higher name recognition unless a lot of other Republicans rediscover their spines and unite behind a primary opponent. (That’s an opponent, singular; otherwise, Trump will do what he did in 2016, and overwhelm a too-crowded field with his theatrics.)

Yes, banding together to replace Trump will mean implicitly admitting that Democrats kinda had a point about him, which will be humiliating. Yes, there’s a good chance that Trump will split the party, either running as an independent, or encouraging his voters to stay home. But consider the risks of sticking with him.

Trump is so unpopular now that he lost to a two-time also-ran. He is now just barely breaking even in the polls despite Biden’s low approval ratings. If the Mar-a-Lago mess reduces his general election vote share by just a few percentage points, it becomes functionally impossible for him to win. And that’s before we factor in whatever other scandals might strike between now and November 2024.

There is no path to long-term success that runs through Donald Trump; increasingly, it doesn’t even seem like there’s a path to short-term success. So however scary it feels to stand up to Trump, the idea of letting him run further amok ought to frighten Republicans even more.