Even after Hurricane Helsinki, President Trump’s Republican critics still find themselves shouting into the wind.
While more Republicans than usual criticized Trump’s dizzying news conference with Vladimir Putin earlier this week, the possibility of a sustained backlash inside the party is already dwindling. It’s splintering against the same rocks that quickly ended the uprising last summer over Trump’s comments on white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia: the refusal of congressional Republicans to offer more than cursory questioning of his behavior, much less impose any consequences for it. “People are not on board yet for really taking him on,” admits Bill Kristol, the longtime conservative strategist.
Trump’s Republican skeptics, both inside and outside of Congress, agree that GOP officials who privately rail about Trump won’t publicly challenge him primarily because polls show he’s so popular with the party base. But that’s partly a self-fulfilling prophecy: One reason Trump is so popular with the base is that no one has made a systematic case against his presidency from a Republican perspective.
A handful of Republican elected officials, and a slightly longer roster of party strategists and intellectuals, have intermittently criticized Trump for his attacks on federal law enforcement, his racially divisive language and actions, his assaults on the Western military alliance, his trade wars, and his obsequiousness toward Putin. Often, those critiques have been eloquent and impassioned. But, judging by Trump’s towering Republican approval ratings, they have left little imprint.
If anything, these solo flights may have weakened the anti-Trump cause inside the GOP. Other elected officials view occasional Trump critics like Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who are retiring, and Rep. Mark Sanford, who lost a primary, less as an inspiration than a warning. “The individual ad hoc attacks on Trump aren’t effective, and they are potentially counterproductive because it allows Trump to isolate the people who are doing it,” says Pete Wehner, who was director of strategic planning in the George W. Bush White House.
There’s no easy solution to that dilemma. But history suggests the first step may be to find strength in numbers. In recent decades, other factions disaffected with their party’s direction have amplified their influence by coalescing and creating their own institutions. Probably the best-known recent example is the Democratic Leadership Council, which party centrists formed after President Reagan routed old-style liberal Walter Mondale in 1984.
That precedent isn’t exactly analogous to the situation facing Trump’s GOP critics, because the DLC developed while Republicans held the White House—that meant the group could press its case without confronting a president from its own party. A more precise analogy may be the Committee on the Present Danger, a group of national security hawks who fought President Carter’s arms-control efforts with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.
While both of these groups’ goals were controversial, their impact was undeniable.
That’s exactly what Kristol and GOP operative Sarah Longwell now hope to replicate with their group Defending Democracy Together, which they launched with several allies last spring. The group has separate projects defending immigration, free trade, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; and it plans to launch a “Republicans Against Putin” initiative. But the organization is still operating at modest scale. “So far, we are doing things that are nicking at Trump,” Kristol acknowledges.
Like Wehner and other Trump critics, Kristol believes the key to redirecting the party is mounting a serious primary challenge against Trump in 2020. For inspiration, Kristol points to a third modern example of party insurrection: the uprising against President Lyndon Johnson by liberal Vietnam War opponents. That movement recruited Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to challenge Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries, and after McCarthy ran unexpectedly well in the first contest in New Hampshire, Johnson abruptly chose not to seek reelection.
Trump, of course, remains favored to beat any primary opponent. But it might still loosen his hold on the party if a challenger consistently ran well in white-collar suburbs. Between now and 2020, it is precisely those voters whom the Defending Democracy group will be targeting with its message that Trump is undermining both the party’s principles and its long-term electoral prospects. “Those are the people we are trying to find, capture, and cultivate,” Longwell says.
The history of these earlier internal rebellions suggests that to regain leverage inside the GOP, Trump’s critics don’t have to prove that they are a majority of their party; they just have to demonstrate that the party can’t win without them. And if the party ignores that lesson, Trump’s GOP critics can find another relevant precedent in the Committee on the Present Danger’s experience: After the CPD’s leaders concluded that most Democrats no longer shared their views, many joined the other side in Reagan’s administration.
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