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What Would It Cost for Republicans to Condemn Trump?

Anything you will have to do eventually, you should do immediately.
July 16, 2019
What Would It Cost for Republicans to Condemn Trump?
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This is the passage that struck me most in the George Conway piece everyone is talking about:

What’s just as bad, though, is the virtual silence from Republican leaders and officeholders. They’re silent not because they agree with Trump. Surely they know better. They’re silent because, knowing that he’s incorrigible, they have inured themselves to his wild statements; because, knowing that he’s a fool, they don’t really take his words seriously and pretend that others shouldn’t, either; because, knowing how damaging Trump’s words are, the Republicans don’t want to give succor to their political enemies; because, knowing how vindictive, stubborn and obtusely self-destructive Trump is, they fear his wrath.

What is it, exactly, that we want from elected Republicans?

In a perfect world, what we’d want is some combination of the following:

  • Universal condemnation of Trump’s remarks.
  • Reaching out to Democrats in order to establish a bipartisan response showing unity of purpose.
  • Backing of a formal censure or similar statement of legislative condemnation.

The problem is that we do not now, nor have we ever, lived in a perfect world.

So I would suggest that while this is a reasonable hope, it would be an unreasonable expectation.

In the real world, there is some percentage of elected Republicans who simply will not criticize President Trump.

Their reasons may differ. Some of them genuinely believe that it is not their place. Some genuinely believe that their party is bigger than any one man and must be supported at all costs. Some genuinely believe that criticizing Trump will produce worse outcomes than not criticizing him.

And some genuinely believe that Trump is right on the merits. Which is to say, they also wish that brown people would just “go back to their own countries.”

Which leaves us with a Republican party in which only some percentage would even want to criticize or censure Trump, even if they got a free pass for doing so.

Would that percentage be 80 percent? Or 50 percent? Or 30 percent?

I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter because the reality is that it means that the Republican party can’t/won’t criticize Trump. Only some portion of it could/would.

So when we say that we want Republicans to condemn Trump here, we’re saying that we want them to break the party.

That’s a big ask.

First, let’s make the case for not blowing up the GOP.

Let’s say you’re a Republican office holder who despises Trump. Some nice, handsome fellow named Wren Basse. Or Flike Mallagher. You’re smart. You’re principled. You did not sign up for this shit when you got into public life.

If you keep your head down and let this pass, you stay in the game and will have some say in future events. But that’s not the real upside. You can’t predict the future and maybe you’re never in a position to add real value later down the line.

No, the real point is that if you blow it all up there’s an excellent chance you’ll be replaced by, well, someone like Greg Gianforte. Or Steve King.

Which is to say, that instead of having some Republicans in Congress who quietly disagree with Trump’s racism, you’ll have more people who eagerly and vociferously agree with it.

That would give me pause, too.

And further, what would your condemnations really accomplish right now? The 2020 election is close enough that it’s the only thing that really matters, but far enough that there’s plenty of time for people to forget all about this incident.

Because if the Trump Experience has taught us anything, it’s that there’s always more.

So maybe you decide that institutions matter and that you’d rather work within the system.

On the other hand, Republicans have been telling themselves that same story since 2015 and how’s that been working out for them?

At just about every step in Trump’s ascension, Republicans who had the power to stop him chose not to, for more or less the reasons outlined above.

The biggest of these missed opportunities was Paul Ryan’s decision not to mount a campaign against Trump following the Access Hollywood tape.

Had Ryan actively turned on Trump and called on other Republicans to do the same, he would have broken the party. That’s a 100 percent certainty.

But Trump would not be president today. That’s also a 100 percent certainty.

Which means that all of the damage Trump has inflicted on the GOP since 2016 wouldn’t have happened. And without the power of the White House, his institutional hold on the party would have been broken. If the party was capable of healing itself—an open question—the healing process would already be underway.

Paul Ryan’s political career would have been over, too. But then, that was inevitable at the time anyway. Ryan just didn’t realize it.

So there’s the case for Republicans actually speaking their mind:

You might break the party.

You might sacrifice your political career.

But those things are happening already. Right now. Whether you like it or not.

And with every passing corruption, the institutional value of the party diminishes. Because institutions are only forces for good when they are in the right hands. When bad people control them, institutions can be deeply destructive.

Finally, if you disagree with President Trump on whether or not your political opponents should “go back to their own country” then as of right now you are out of step with your party. And that bill will come due eventually.

Just ask Paul Ryan.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.