In retrospect, the GOP was in trouble as soon as Donald Trump became the frontrunner in the Republican primary. The outsider with no government experience knocked the party on its ear, dispatching with relative ease 16 experienced, longtime party members who many Trump supporters denounced as “RINOs.”
In fact, it was Trump who was the RINO. Trump was a Republican in name only who had frequently changed parties and who didn’t share many of the Republican Party’s core tenets such as free trade, a commitment to cut government spending and to shrink government. Trump ran a nationalist, anti-establishment campaign that focused on immigration, a hot button issue that had historically split the GOP down the middle. Nevertheless, as Trump became the inevitable nominee, Republicans mostly embraced him as “better than Hillary.”
From the moment that Trump won the nomination, the party was in trouble. Even though a large minority argued that Trump was both unelectable and unfit, after he won the primary there was no real chance to find a better candidate. Never Trumpers were proven wrong on the charge of electability, but Trump is proving them right about his fitness to govern.
Once Trump won the nomination, denying it to him would have split the party between the Trump base, many of whom may not have been Republicans before 2016, and, for lack of a better term, the party establishment. Hillary would have cruised to the White House, a price that was too much to pay for many Republicans.
Four months into the Trump Administration, the new president has been rocked by one scandal after another, many of his own making. Trump’s positive, lasting accomplishments, excluding Executive Orders, so far number about one: Neil Gorsuch.
As the scandals get more serious, such as possible obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation and jeopardizing national security by haphazardly sharing classified information, more Republicans will soon be looking to extricate themselves from their marriage of convenience to Donald Trump. The question is whether they can do so without destroying their party.
The choice that Republicans now face is similar to the one that they faced at the Republican convention. If they reject Trump’s antics and try to rein him in, which will possibly lead to pressuring him to resign or impeachment, then Trump’s loyal base will declare war on the party. With the country almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, the loss of a significant number of Republicans would mean that Democrats would cruise to easy victories. On the other hand, if Republicans continue to back an increasingly outlandish Donald Trump, then they will alienate themselves from traditional Republican voters as well as a large part of the country.
At this point, either option splits the GOP and leaves the country in control of the Democrats. The big question is for how long. If Republicans choose to be “dead enders” and stick with Trump to the bitter end, they may find support from the Trumpian right, but probably not far beyond that. The longer Republicans persist in attempting to defend the indefensible, the more ludicrous they will look and the more trust they will lose from the voting public.
On the other hand, a quicker return to the traditional conservative principles of the Republican Party may help to salvage the reputation of the party and its elected officials. This does not mean that Republicans need to be anti-Trump, but they do need to hold him accountable to the same standards that they would hold a Democrat.
The GOP would not have turned a blind eye to the firing of the FBI director by Hillary to stop the email investigation. It wouldn’t have ignored Barack Obama revealing classified information to the Russians. Barrages of insults and attacking the press as the “enemy of the people” are not traditional Republican principles. For that matter, neither is threatening trade wars, building expensive and ineffective walls or lavishing praise on dictators.
It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Trump can change enough to salvage his presidency. The Trump coalition that eked out a victory by 77,000 votes in three swing states is almost certainly history. With Trump’s razor thin margin of victory concentrated in normally blue states, it would not take much to make his election a feat that could not be repeated. Trump’s erratic behavior and the continuing dribble of stories about links with Russia ensure that the scandals will not go away.
Republicans should cut their losses. Trump’s plummeting approval ratings and increasing number of scandals threatens not only the legislative agenda for the current Congress, but Republican majorities in the 2018 elections and beyond. As Trump’s negatives, which were always high, continue to mount, the best strategy might be for Republicans to distance themselves from the president. While most Republicans in Washington have more-or-less stood by the commander-in-chief so far, the dam may be about to burst.
At this point, it isn’t so much a question of if Trump will be brought down, but who he will take with him. Republicans in Congress should consider whether their allegiance is to an outsider who became president or the values of the voters who sent them to Washington. Are you Trumpians or Republicans?
The Democrats may have gotten a break in losing the election. The two candidates were the most unpopular and unqualified ever presented by the parties to the nation. Republicans “won” and now have to live with the consequences of their victory… and the compromise of party principles that it required.
Can the Republican Party be saved? That is uncertain, but conservatives are not going away. If the Republican Party folds, then conservatives will reorganize under another banner to fight another day. And hopefully they will learn from the folly of electing Donald Trump.