Republicans in Washington are overcome by a sense of dread they haven’t felt since 2016, when they were certain Donald Trump had destroyed their party, and before that since 2008, when their party lost control of government in a modern landslide.
Most of them would not acknowledge this fact publicly, but aside from Trump himself—who walls off his mind from information he doesn’t want to know—they can see as well as anyone that if the election were held this week, Trump would lose badly, and Democrats would sweep Republicans out of power in the Senate as well.
Viewed from a certain angle, and through the prism of social media in particular, it’s hard to see how this can be so. Left-of-center factions remain mired in disagreement over everything from whether police forces should exist to whom Joe Biden should add to his ticket, while the propaganda-drenched right-wing media portrays Trump as it always does: constantly beset by villains and turncoats, yet undeterred and on the march from victory to victory.
But the reality is quite different: Trump galumphs from defeat to debacle while Republicans attempt to gauge whether the movement underfoot is a passing tremor or the big one. As more conclude that they don’t want to be known best for having been Trump loyalists to the end, they have left Trump surrounded by those most like him: predatory, corrupt, and desperate to stay in power at any cost.
Trump may be perversely used to this by now. He campaigned through 2016 with a rabid base but without the benefit of a confident party behind him, and at several junctures since his inauguration he has sent Republicans scrambling for cover from the backlash to his racism, corruption, and incompetence. But in the past two weeks alone, officials from across the government and GOP establishment have defied Trump and hedged in their support for him as if to showcase a growing disquiet.
Before Trump let coronavirus sweep the country and destroy the economy, before he inflamed civil unrest and assaulted peaceful protesters in the shadow of the White House, Republicans saw a fraught path to victory that entailed fabricating scandals around Joe Biden to erode his support at the margins—particularly among young voters and black voters—while claiming credit for the growing economy they inherited from the Obama administration. This plan had the benefit of buy in from the whole party. “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the Senate’s second-highest ranking Republican. “One thing we have to do is to make sure that we are united on our agenda and make sure that there’s not separation between the White House and Republicans in Congress.”
Just weeks later, multiple elected Republicans and party stalwarts have either disavowed Trump or tried to signal that they’ve reached a breaking point. Trump’s former defense secretary and chief of staff, both retired generals, have belatedly acknowledged that Trump is unfit to lead the country, as has a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, reportedly will not support Trump’s re-election, nor will the party’s last presidential nominee, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) won’t commit to supporting him in 2020, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) refused to be seen with him on his recent trip to her state. His current defense secretary, Mark Esper, expressed public opposition to Trump’s proposal to deploy active duty military into protest zones across the country; his current joint chiefs chair apologized for participating in the campaign photo-op stunt that followed the assault on Farragut Square.
These are the episodes that attracted the most media attention, but they are only one part of a larger pattern that includes policy disagreements and personnel defections. Two GOP-appointed justices, including one of his own appointees, Neil Gorsuch, overrode his administration’s interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBT people.
Trump’s own FDA withdrew its own conditional support for treating COVID-19 symptoms with hydroxychloroquine, the dangerous pharmaceutical Trump has falsely touted, and claimed to ingest personally, as a miracle preventive. In Congress, all but one Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee ignored Trump’s staunch support of naming U.S. military installations after Confederate generals and embraced legislation that will require those installations to be renamed. This has created a schism within the GOP conference, and may require Republican members to choose sides in two different votes: One on an amendment to strip the renaming provisions from the defense authorization act, another if Trump vetoes the bill after it passes. Trump, who hoped to wage a disingenuous campaign to portray the opposition as the true source of racial injustice in America, has instead led his own party into a referendum on whether it supports him and prominent pro-slavery confederates, or not.
As this referendum took shape, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea—a retired navy admiral—draped a Black Lives Matter flag along the facade of our embassy in Seoul, “to communicate a message of solidarity with Americans concerned with racism, especially racial violence against African Americans… to highlight the enduring American values of racial equality, freedom of speech, and the right to peacefully protest,” according to a spokesman. Trump’s housing secretary, and his only black cabinet official, said it was “not productive” for Trump to compare himself favorably to Abraham Lincoln as an agent of black liberation, and that he hoped to prevail on Trump to stop heaping abuse on black athletes protesting police brutality.
Through it all, Trump has shown occasional awareness that he can not win exclusively by pandering to his base, but seems to have processed this realization by whipsawing wildly between fanning his supporters’ grievances and pretending to support causes they oppose. He has invoked the killing of George Floyd in a nakedly transactional way while asserting that the military and law-enforcement “dominated the streets” (how else?) “with compassion.” Amid an outcry from social conservatives who feel Gorsuch betrayed them and Trump both, Trump said, “we live with their… very powerful decision.” Trump can not appeal broadly, he can only play both ends against the middle, and for him that means offsetting a George Wallace act with occasional-but-lifeless impressions of left-wing liberationists. In a way, he’s hedging against himself.
The effect of these sudden bursts of resistance—driven by a mixture of institutional concerns and naked political self-interest—has been to place Trump at the nadir of legitimate power, yet surrounded by increasingly toxic, dangerous people. Both the solicitor general of the United States and the assistant attorney general for the criminal division will resign from the Justice Department in the coming weeks, leaving their positions to be filled by unaccountable acting officials through whatever corrupt schemes Bill Barr has in store for the election. If Trump’s standing continues to slip, other officials will follow, weakening him further, yet hastening the government’s metamorphosis into a tool of his indulgence. This is why Democrats have balanced a refusal to grow complacent about Trump’s vulnerability to defeat with genuine alarm that Trump will not willingly accept the outcome if he loses. Trump has always sought to surround himself with the kind of crooks and liars that would stand by his side through an attempt to steal an election, but he’s achieved that goal through a process of elimination, not addition. Everyone with a hint of conscience or dignity left to lose has abandoned him already.