Republicans are social distancing - from Trump
Illustration credit: Imogen Bishop

In 2016, Donald J. Trump was very much the outrider candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Opposed by establishment favourites like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, he did the seemingly impossible, and trounced them. Yet this alone did not win him favour with the Republican elites he had derided and humiliated. What little support he did receive was lacklustre. The last two Republicanpresidents, Georges W. and H.W. Bush did not vote for him. Trump was a Republican in Name Only, lacking the support of much of the traditional party elite.

Power has an incredible effect on people. After Trump beat Hillary Clinton, many of the Republicans who had been so cold warmed to him remarkably quickly. Paul Ryan, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, rushed to receive President-elect Trump in Washington.  So began four years of obsequious sucking-up to the Commander-in-Chief from all those who had previously disdained him.

Recently, however, rumblings of discontent among the old guard have been heard. These party stalwarts have silently survived numerous presidential crises by gritting their teeth and reminding themselves of what they have to gain from supporting the President. Now, as the police turn on protestors in the streets of America and Trump’s Coronavirus response comes under harsh scrutiny and criticism, some of them have had enough.

Leading the charge against Trump within his own party is the Senator from Utah, Mitt Romney. Romney, who has never been shy about rebuking the President, was seen at a Black Lives Matter protest in the capital. “We need to stand up and say that black lives matter”, the Senator was filmed saying. But he has not been the only major Republican giving a signal, however subtle, against the incumbent administration.

When protestors were forcibly cleared out of the way for Trump’s photo opportunity at an Episcopalian church near the White House, there was a quiet but perceptible chorus of criticism from Republicans in Congress. Senator Susan Collins (Maine) described the scene as “painful to watch“. Sen. Ben Sasse (Nebraska) said that he opposed “clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop”. The only black Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, commented: “if your question is: Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op? The answer is no.”

None of this is particularly stinging criticism. Yet it is, in a simple way, very significant. Trump’s behaviour has reached a point where these Republicans believe that the moral and political price of staying silent and being loyal has exceeded any possible gain. More specifically, it is apparent that high-profile Republicans have decided that Trump is going to lose this year. They are readying themselves for the fight over the party’s carcass which will begin the day after the election.

Cynics who back President Trump would have no trouble believing that the Republican establishment have been anxiously awaiting this moment ever since the President took office. Whether or not that is true (and it is perfectly reasonable to assume that it might be), does not make a huge difference. Even if top Republicans want Trump to win this autumn, their pessimism seems to be driving small and calculated acts of rebellion which might give them a head-start in the race to control a party shaken by defeat. The President has silenced critics precisely because they challenge his previously successful formula to win nationwide.

But the stench of weakness is attracting the vultures. While some Republicans, like Senator Romney are motivated by their own morals and values, we cannot be so charitable to them all. It seems more than likely that the GOP establishment are greedily awaiting an election loss which will be a reset to the Republican Party of before Trump..

What is less clear is whether they are correct to think this way. Trump’s victory in the 2016 primaries, and then in the general election, was a stunning rebuke from the GOP membership to a party leadership which they felt had taken them for granted and failed to represent their interests. The party was the same institution it had been for decades, but below the surface, other political ideologies and interests had for years been growing in strength. Chief among these were the isolationism abroad and hostility to immigration at home which Donald Trump came to embody.

Trump’s current weakness does not mean that establishment Republicanism is seeing some resurgence. If he fails in November, it will be because his voter base, weary of national division and hit hard by Coronavirus, abandon their beloved champion. That voter base has very different priorities to the Bushes and Romneys of the old GOP.

The President can afford to ignore mutterings from his own camp, because at the end of the day, they cannot get rid of him. Nobody seriously believes that the election will hinge on the loyalty of Republican senators. President Reagan famously remarked that, in politics, you have to dance “with the one that brung ya”. The real threat to Trump’s re-election hopes is that these voters simply don’t turn out on election day; if this happens, Republicans are already positioning to take the lead.