But he fights!
Confronted with all of Donald Trump’s apostasies and behavioral malfunctions, all the damning evidence of their leader’s countless shortcomings, this was the battle cry of his supporters, including those who should’ve known better. At least he fights.
I am loathe to compliment the president, ever. But here I have to make an exception. As frustrating as his supporters’ deflections were and are, on this point…they’re right. He was willing to fight where my side was not, and we need look no further than the ongoing unilateral surrender of GOP elected officials and donors to see that nothing has changed.
As Dennis Green would say they are what we thought they were—or, in this case, what Trump said they were.
This week Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) became the latest in a long line of Trump-skeptical Republicans to lay down his arms. Unlike the most loathsome of GOP elites, he didn’t capitulate by putting on Trump’s jersey. Rather, he said he didn’t think he could win as Trump’s adversary. He picked quitting with dignity over winning in disgrace, or risking defeat with integrity.
Maybe Flake’s calculation is a tactically wise one. Maybe a Republican who’s made peace with Trump has a better chance of holding Flake’s Senate seat without Flake in the race. It’s certainly the conclusion many strategists who’ve notched more wins than I have reached in the past 36 hours.
It’s not a mystery why he decided to bail, in other words. Hopefully, as a lame duck, Flake will turn out to be the lonely Republican senator who finally takes on the task of containing Trump legislatively—advancing ethics rules and investigations that limit executive branch excesses before he retires. And to be clear, even if Flake slinks away quietly, I would take one of him over the endless parade of Trump jock sniffers who currently serve in the majority with him.
But nothing he does from today until the Senate adjourns next winter can change the fact that his resignation is a punch to the gut for those of us who are yearning for more Flakes in the GOP and fewer jock sniffers. The dwindling number of anti-Trump Republican elected leaders now nears an empty set, risking a future in which the war against Trumpism is fought entirely along Democratic vs. Trumpist lines.
I spent two long days with Republicans in the swamp this week and almost everyone I spoke with privately agreed with Flake’s denunciations of Trump. But very few were interested in doing anything meaningful about it. Their minds are elsewhere. On the fear of Republican base voters, the allure of tax cuts, the sense that fighting is hopeless, and that winning with imperfect leaders is better than losing to the godless socialist snowflakes in the other party. The excuses are endless.
Establishment Republicans have decided that their only options are to accommodate the president or to contain him—a community of self-professed Churchillians and all they can muster is appeasement.
Steve Bannon and his billionaire backers have filled this void unopposed on the battlefield, laying waste, with reckless, racist abandon, to Republican men and women who must pledge loyalty or perish. There are no reinforcements, there’s no cavalry to save them.
When the establishment does join the fight, it is from a humiliating, defensive crouch. Republicans spent eight figures in the recent Alabama primary runoff, defending interim senator Luther Strange with television ads that may as well have depicted Strange nose-to-jock with Trump. And when he lost anyhow, nearly every elected Republican in Congress donned a Roy Moore jersey with “Jail Fags” emblazoned on the back of it.
In Mississippi this past weekend, a leading establishment-Republican Trump supporter told me I need to join him in repeating this disaster, with incumbent senator Roger Wicker in the role of Luther Strange, pretending to worship Trump to protect his seat from a Calvin Candie-wannabe talk-radio host.
Even when this defensive strategy works, we lose. The establishment appeared to have eked out a victory recently in Virginia when Ed Gillespie—a long time confidant of Mitt Romney and President George W. Bush—barely defeated Corey Stewart—a confederate cosplayer from Minnesota—in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial primary, only to see Gillespie run a general-election campaign centered on how the South will rise again if we protect Confederate monuments and wipe out swarthy criminal gangs.
Pretending to be something we are not is how the establishment Republicans got here, but it is not the path out. The Republican Party cannot neutralize Trump and Bannon by coopting their worst qualities and then pretending the ugliness never happened. That’s merely an undignified, drawn out way of losing.
After reading this piece, my friends who are still involved in Republican campaigns will tell me it’s easy to make this point from the sidelines. That the voters are demanding loyalty to Trump. That if we don’t play ball there will be no “good” Republicans left.
Maybe that’s true. And maybe we deserve it. (Though that’s a topic for another column.)
But as a prebuttal to them, let me tell a story about an underdog.
Two years ago there was an aging, narcissistic, race-baiting buffoon sitting in a bronze-plated penthouse in New York City, telling his friends that despite his history as a pro-choice Democrat, and the fact that he had never won a campaign in his life, he was going to take over the Republican Party, vanquish the establishment, defeat two dynasties and become President of the United States. The most recent bullet point on his resume was starring in a reality TV show along with Bret Michaels and Gary Busey. The elite media and politicians and donors considered him an utter joke. He couldn’t find any professionals to run his campaign so he hired an F-list manager who was previously a journeyman field operative for the Koch Brothers with a reputation for sexual harassment and little else. He tapped a fashion flack to head up his media operation and a golf caddy to sharpen his online brand. When he announced his campaign he had to pay actors to attend the event because he had no local supporters. He trashed the semi-polished speech his advisers had drafted in favor of a bananapants rant about killer rapist Mexican marauders roaming the countryside.
But from that day forward, he fought. And that moron is now leader of the free world.
You are telling me that a respected conservative, Trump-critical incumbent holding his seat in a red state is really more implausible than that?
Trump is grotesque, but if there’s one positive lesson we can learn from him and his supporters it is this: To win, you have to fight. The implausible is possible. The tectonic plates beneath our politics are shifting constantly. Our erratic national embarrassment of a president could make a mistake so grave that his minions turn against him. Or if not his minions, then enough Republicans to start a stampede. The containment strategy could collapse and expose a naked, flailing, incompetent, corrupt government that the people insist upon purging.
Admittedly, we are likelier to witness a sustained drift towards Trumpism driven by Republican voters and abetted by unprincipled-but-ambitious Republican politicians. On Tuesday, Ben Domenech, editor in chief of The Federalist, argued that the war is over and all that remains is awkward tension between Zombie Reaganites and a new Trumpified GOP. If I were a betting man, I’d sadly lay my chips with Ben.
But even if he’s right, the correct moral and strategic path is not for the zombies to disappear or reanimate as seething nationalists.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote recently, “only in actual political competition can the Republican elite reckon with why it lost its party, and how it might win again without succumbing to Trumpian indecency.”
That competition would require leaders to rally, and donors to support a cause they know is right against the odds, and a broad willingness within the party to chip away slowly at the base of support for racial grievance politics masquerading as populism. The other option is to wake up in a not-too-distant future, in a party dominated by racists and reactionaries and red hats, and retire to the suburbs wondering how we got here.
The many Republicans and independents who don’t want that future need to ready themselves to fight as underdogs. But the fight is worth it.