Last week, following President Trump’s appalling Vladimir Putin foreplay in Helsinki, the country got to witness a tired political maneuver once again: The President does something legitimately crazy and/or moronic, and Republican elected officials, by and large, refuse to exhibit any real balls whatsoever, accepting nominal “fixes” by Trump like the “would/wouldn’t” explanation because they’re too afraid of him and his voters to speak up.
This is the wrong strategy, and it fails to take account of a big reason why Trump fans—which includes most of the GOP—really, really like him. No, it’s not the policy. It’s the balls.
Clearly, Trump is wrong about a whole host of policies, starting with health care, trade, and immigration. But he’s attractive to Republicans despite being wrong on, and not very conservative with regard to, these and many, many other things. This is because, as so many Trump supporters say, “he fights.” They are less concerned about what he fights for than the simple act of the fighting.
Trump, in short, has cojones. Other Republicans don’t.
Everyone who closely watched the 2016 presidential contest is likely nodding along here. Second-tier candidates were frequently willing to pick a fight with Trump, notably Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and John Kasich kind of did, but they looked more like they were throwing jabs, whereas Trump continually churned out knock-out punches.
It continues to this day. Rubio (full disclosure: I voted for him, like him and have donated to him) said after Trump’s “would/wouldn’t” clean up, that solved roughly 3 percent of the problems created by his Putin-pleasing remarks earlier in the week that "I’m just glad he clarified it. I can’t read his intentions or what he meant to say at the time. suffice it to say that for me as a policy maker, what really matters is what we do moving forward."
You can absolutely bet that if President Rubio had screwed up so massively, Trump would be treating him like Sonny Corleone did Carlo Rizzi, because Trump does not pull his punches, even if he’s punching at the wrong person or thing entirely. The congressional GOP, by and large, seems to still be laboring under the misapprehension that they can replicate Trump’s popularity with the base by not parting ways with him too much, or indeed emulating him, which they do to varying degrees on immigration, trade, and Russia.
Again, this is a bad idea. Voters can smell inauthenticity a mile off, and they don’t like wusses. Especially Republican voters. It’s one reason a bunch of them were never as warm toward Mitt Romney as they are toward Trump. It’s a reason why in the 2012 contest, a lot of voters showed interest in Newt Gingrich, who exhibited a willingness to get rough in debates in a way that that Romney never could.
Republicans need to learn this lesson, and learn it now. People are always asking when the Republicans will break from Trump. The answer contains a great irony: They will break from him when they start acting more like him. That doesn’t mean aping him on policy. Just on style, while in fact standing up to him on policy where they disagree.
Here are three areas where they don’t agree with the President and should start showing a few more huevos.
First, trade. Yes, Mitch McConnell has reasons not to cross Trump on trade—for example, some coal companies who have juice with McConnell like Trump’s tariffs because they supply the U.S. steelmaking industry. However, it’s hard to believe McConnell really agrees with what Trump is doing or wouldn’t like to stop it. As such, the Senate GOP—and the House, frankly—should quit with non-binding resolutions and just come out and gut the tariffs.
Yes, they’re worried they won’t get reelected or will be turned into the new version of Mark Sanford. But if the country winds up in a recession on a GOP president and Congress’ watch, they’re not going to get reelected then, either. Note that Michigan Congressman Justin Amash has been calling the party, including Trump, out on this, pretty boldly.
He may ultimately pay an electoral price for it, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Amash is probably a better politician than Sanford. Partly, that’s because he’s known to pick difficult fights on things as politically tricky as surveillance and stick to his guns. He’s not going to be confused for a duck-and-cover guy, even a little.
Second, more in the GOP need to draw and consistently hold a firm line when it comes to Trump’s inappropriate statements and behavior concerning people who are not white men. Rep. Martha Roby arguably demonstrated the political upside of doing this again this week. Remember how in 2016, she un-endorsed Trump over the Access Hollywood tape? In so doing, she showed more testicular fortitude than most of her male counterparts combined.
People thought it would cost her in her primary, but it didn’t. Maybe that’s because Trump and Vice President Mike Pence endorsed her anyway; but that in itself might be because she demonstrated enough toughness, political acumen and tailoring to her district that they didn’t have a choice—i.e., someone with no balls acted ballsy enough to deter even Trump himself from messing with her.
Third and most of all, of course, Republicans—and not just the ones who have one foot out the door—should be speaking up against Trump with regard to Putin. In the aftermath of Trump’s summit disaster, it was reported that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out U.S. cooperation with a Russian effort to prosecute our former ambassador to Russia (thankfully, the Senate pushed back on that with a 98-0 vote disapproving the idea). Trump also seemed to do a flip-flop-flip on Russian targeting of our elections.
Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake introduced a resolution “reaffirming Senate support for the Intel Community’s assessment of Russian attacks and dismissing the denial of Vladimir Putin,” for which he intended to seek unanimous Senate consent to pass. But in truth, it should have been someone like Rubio, whose expertise is foreign policy, or maybe Tom Cotton—if he wanted to look like a serious person on national security issues, doing this—not Flake. The fact that it was Flake leading makes the others look a little wussy again—something Rubio already suffered from in 2016.
If Republicans spent less time adopting Trumpy policies and coddling him in areas where they genuinely do disagree with him, and spent more time exhibiting the kind of toughness and passion he does, just with regard to their issues, policies and beliefs, the odds are, they’d have better approval ratings. Just ask any average Trump voter. But even better than that, they’d actually be doing their jobs.