Cracks in the Republican Party establishment are getting bigger

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a "Spirit of America Showcase" event in the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Throughout Donald Trump’s chaotic, turbulent, and unconventional presidency the other leaders of the Republican Party have stood by him to a remarkable degree. Some, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, are true believers cut from the same cloth. Others, like Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, are former harsh critics who seem to have had an almost religious conversion to the church of Trump. And still others have been cowed by the possibility that Trump would support someone else to run against them in a Republican primary.

Early May saw some small cracks in that support, mostly among the Republican governors who did not side with Trump on re-opening up the economy early. Those who followed Trump’s lead—in Florida, Georgia and Texas—are now paying the price as COVID-19 infection rates set daily records. Also in May, some endangered Republican senators were reportedly looking for ways to walk a thin line between supporting Trump and seeming independent of him. And a group called the Lincoln Project, composed mostly of former “never-Trump” Republicans produced some high-priced, really pointed ads criticizing the president.

As I predicted in May, if voters moved away from Trump so would other Republican leaders and that has come to pass. In two months, Trump’s re-election fortunes have moved downhill with polls showing Biden leading Trump nationally (in some cases by double digits). More polls showed Biden leading Trump in key states and even states Trump won by significant margins in 2016. Finally, second-quarter numbers showing Biden raising more money than Trump for the second month in a row.

And with every drop in the polls, the cracks in Trump’s solid Republican Party grow larger. Take the issue of renaming military bases that were named after Confederate military leaders. In the wake of the George Floyd killing and the protests that followed, this long-festering, under-the-radar issue suddenly became a national issue, and began to play out in Congress via the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The NDAA is an enormous piece of legislation funding the military and much of our national security infrastructure. Senator Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.) proposed an amendment to the bill in committee that would rename bases named after Confederate military commanders. Trump vowed to veto the bill because of that one amendment. And yet, rather than falling in line, the bill passed out of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a committee chaired by the conservative Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), by a vote of 25-2. And many Republican senators predict that the bill would pass with the amendment intact and have enough votes to override a presidential veto.

Over on the House side, Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) publicly criticized the president over his handling of intelligence indicating that Russians were paying Taliban fighters bounties for the killing of American soldiers and demanded that he be tougher on the Russians. Cheney has also confronted the president over his refusal to wear masks, noting that her father, the former vice president, wears a mask. Cheney has criticized Trump before and her impeccable conservative credentials and her position in the House Republican leadership make that criticism all the more damaging. But lately, her willingness to speak out against Trump is being viewed as one small move in the direction of leading a post-Trump Republican Party.

Finally, among Republican governors, those who adopted Trump’s position on re-opening up their states as early as possible are doing worse than those who didn’t. For instance, Republican Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio had excellent approval ratings before the virus hit. He adopted a careful strategy towards reopening and has maintained those high standings with an 82% approval rating in June. In contrast, the Republican governors of Florida, Georgia and Texas (none of whom started out as high as DeWine) have significantly lower approval ratings and these are likely to sink even further as the situation in those states gets worse.

As Republican leaders find themselves forced to distance themselves from the president they will also begin discussions about what their party looks like in the post-Trump era. For starters they may want to dip into a new book by Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard University. Titled Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself, the book outlines five traps the party has found itself in.[1] Ideologically, Patterson argues that the GOP is “captive to its reactionary base” (p. 33). The second trap is a demographic one: population trends are moving away from today’s Republican Party. Says Patterson, “Instead of bringing on board yet another media consultant a few decades ago, Republicans would have been wise to hire a demographer” (p. 60). A third trap is the power of right-wing media to create distorted and inaccurate pictures of reality—a trap that is coming home to roost as red states find themselves in the midst of a COVID-19 explosion. A fourth trap is a rise in income inequality. The gap is growing so large that Patterson observes “a rise in class awareness among working-class whites against the GOP and there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest that the sources of their economic anxiety will soon disappear” (p. 108). Patterson’s notes the fifth deception is a moral one—“persistent lying erodes the trust on which democracy depends” (p. 134), an issue others have discussed in detail on this blog.

With every bad poll and with every divisive tweet, the crisis in the Republican Party will become more acute and the conversations about its future more urgent.

[1] KDP Publishing, 2020.