Let’s go back to one of the first high-profile times that Trump used, in Republicans’ own words, racist language. Trump was the Republican nominee for president and was accusing a judge overseeing a lawsuit about Trump University of being biased because of the judge’s Hispanic heritage. At the time, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called it “the textbook definition of a racist comment."
What happened to Ryan? Trump won the election, Republicans embraced him, and Ryan retired after two years rather than keep trying to play nice with Trump.
The next time Trump used language about race that shocked the nation was a year later, during deadly protests led by white supremacists in Charlottesville. A neo-Nazi supporter was recently convicted of murder for ramming a car into a group of peaceful protesters. Yet at the time of the attack, Trump said, “I think there is blame on both sides.”
Ryan said language like that was wrong but maintained he wasn’t going to do anything about it.
Former senator Bob Corker of Tennessee tried to. Once on a shortlist for a Trump Cabinet post, Corker decided to use his leverage as a known Trump ally to say this: “The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful."
Corker saw his popularity in Tennessee plummet. He is now retired.
Fast-forward to the 2018 midterm elections. It’s primary season, and some of the House’s most conservative Republicans are in danger of not even winning their primaries. Why? In the case of Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, voters there remembered how she said she wouldn’t vote for Trump because of the way he bragged about sexually assaulting women in an “Access Hollywood” tape released in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.
She eventually won her primary. But another outspoken Republican critic of Trump wasn’t so lucky. Trump tweeted the day of South Carolina’s primary for Republican voters to knock out sitting congressman Mark Sanford. And they did.
“We’re playing with real fire in a reason-based republic,” Sanford told me shortly after losing his primary.
Mia Love, the lone black Republican in the House, lost her reelection in Utah in November after she criticized Trump for calling Haiti, where her family is from, one of several “shithole countries.”
“Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost,” Trump said.
Seeing a theme here? Republicans who have spoken out forcefully and memorably about Trump are no longer Republican officeholders. It is overly simplistic to say these Republicans retired because of their battles with Trump — though in Ryan’s case, a new book suggests that might be true. But all of them saw the writing on the wall: I can either speak out about Trump, or keep my job. In this Republican Party, you can’t do both.
By late Monday morning — a full day after Trump sent his tweet — there were a handful of Republican condemnations, and the pace of them picked up by Monday afternoon. One early notable critique was Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan for giving an unqualified criticism that what Trump said was “really uncalled for, very disappointing.” Rep. Chip Roy of Texas tweeted that Trump “was wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the U.S.” (Though in that same tweet he made sure to qualify how supportive he is of Trump’s immigration policies.) And Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan tweeted that “these comments are beneath leaders.”
Self-preservation is the default mode of any politician. Most of the congressional survivors of Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party went into that mode when Trump attacked a federal judge and again when he didn’t forcefully stand up for peaceful people protesting white supremacy. So when Trump attacks Democratic lawmakers, who are regular boogeymen on Fox News anyway, there’s no political incentive for Republicans to say anything about it.
That’s the way Trump has engineered the Republican Party, to be able to get away with whatever he wants to say. And it’s working.