Republican rats are slowly abandoning ship, as they finally break ranks over COVID-19 and mask-wearing. These Republicans aren’t heroes. Far from it. But purging them all from the party, as the Lincoln Project apparently wants to do, would be a mistake.
Before I get into all that, though, let’s not dismiss the significance of GOP attrition. If you’re looking for a barometer of Donald Trump’s re-election chances, this development is more telling than any poll.
These Republicans (who have their own pollsters) have demonstrated that they will go whichever way the wind is blowing. And it is now clear that Trump is running against the wind.
Consider Ben Sasse, who has suddenly rediscovered his spine after bowing before Trump’s bogus “emergency” order and then opposing witnesses and impeachment. “I want more briefings but, more importantly, I want the whole White House to start acting like a team on a mission to tackle a real problem,” Sasse told The New York Times, regarding coronavirus. “[Senior trade adviser Peter] Navarro’s Larry, Moe and Curly junior-high slap fight this week is yet another way to undermine public confidence that these guys grasp that tens of thousands of Americans have died and tens of millions are out of work.”
Tough talk, and Sasse isn’t alone. Like several Republican governors cited by the Times, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is also separating from Trump on the issue of wearing masks, as well as on Anthony Fauci, in whom McConnell says he has “total” confidence.
OK, so they aren’t completely abandoning the ship. What we are starting to see, however, is some distancing (and not just the social kind) on the issue that will probably define (and doom!) Trump’s presidency. Some independence. Some daylight between Republicans and their president.
It is against this backdrop that the Lincoln Project dropped a nuclear bomb in the form of an ad targeting Republican senators including McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Martha McSally, and Thom Tillis, just to name a few.
“Someday soon, the time of Trump will pass,” the narrator begins. When that happens, he continues, speaking directly to viewers and voters, “They’ll beg you to forgive their votes to exonerate Trump from his crimes, ask you to forgive their silence, their cowardice, and their betrayals, as Trump wrecked this nation.”
“Learn their names. Remember their actions. And never, ever trust them again.”
They went there. They named names.
It’s a compelling ad, but is this a smart strategy for conservatives who want to restore the Party of Ronald Reagan and not empower the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
I’ve wrestled with this question. On one hand, it is fair to say that these Republicans have enabled Trump’s despicable behavior, while doing nothing to mitigate his worst instincts. Rather than rising to the occasion, they instead buckled under pressure. They lacked both the courage and the character we should expect from our leaders. If Trump were a more competent authoritarian, their cowardice might have been lethal.
On the other hand, if you accept the near inevitability that Joe Biden will be the next president, should a conservative really want to give all the levers of government over to the Democrats?
Just because you think Trump is horrible doesn’t mean you should cheer a 180-degree backlash. Losing the Senate would leave Republicans with little power to block a progressive, pro-abortion Supreme Court Justice nominee, oppose raising taxes, or whatever else Bernie Sanders meant when he said Biden would be “the most progressive president since FDR.”
Apparently, that doesn't bother the Never Trump ad-makers. According to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent (who had a “long and spirited conversation” with Lincoln Project co-founder John Weaver), “The group is preparing to vehemently oppose efforts by GOP senators to obstruct and stymie Biden’s agenda, should he win the presidency.”
Isn’t there a way to sell off Trumpism without selling the farm?
If the goal is to (eventually) restore the GOP to its pre-Trump glory, this purge could make matters worse. The net result would likely be to oust the more moderate members (like Susan Collins); meanwhile, the more Trump-centric members (Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley) survive and thrive. You could end up with a smaller GOP that is dramatically more Trumpy than before.
If Trumpism is a cancer in the Republican Party (the theory goes), then you must root it out completely before it metastasizes. The problem is that most of these Republicans aren’t Trumpists—they’re opportunists. Their behavior was based on a rational conclusion that their voting base wanted them to support their president. If George W. Bush were president, they’d never stop talking about the importance of “compassionate conservatism.” Destroying them reminds me of the line about having to destroy the village to save it.
But at least they would be replaced by brave patriots, right? The sad truth is that most politicians are spineless and malleable. Their primary goals are to avoid pain and win re-election. And while there are specific problems that plague today’s Republican Party, Democrats are hardly immune from the partisan pull or the perverse incentives.
Rather than a revolution that sweeps away everything, divided government, as unsatisfying as it is, seems like a more conservative compromise.
Speaking of revolution, I’m also curious where the lustration ends for these Never Trumpers. Does it stop with politicians who enabled Trump, or does it also extend to pundits and operatives (who, arguably, are more complicit, though not vulnerable at the ballot box))? The list could be pretty long.
Can a party or movement ever revive if the majority of its elites are implicated?
Just how low should de-Trumpification go? In my opinion, it would be nice to have a check-and-balance on the potential excesses of the next regime. Just because you hate Trump doesn’t mean you have to reverse engineer your entire belief system. I haven’t. And when President Biden is trying to raise the top marginal tax rate north of 50 percent, I want enough Republicans in the Senate to be there to stop it.