The Revealing Cynicism of Republicans' Embrace of Trump

by Neil H. Buchanan

Over the past several years, I have puzzled over the phenomenon of the Moderate Republican.  As the party of my youth moved further and further to the right, first driving out Rockefeller liberals but ultimately reaching a point where even Ronald Reagan's policies are anathema to nearly the entire party, reports have continued to bubble up claiming that there are still moderate Republican holdouts.

What could be keeping such people in a party that so clearly disdains moderation and compromise?  It was not due to a lack of an alternative, because the simple fact is that although the distance between the two parties has increased over the last few decades, the Democrats have moved consistently to the right, especially on the economic policies that supposedly matter to the people who claim to be "liberal on social issues but fiscally conservative."

As the Republican campaign heated up last Fall, it became more and more obvious that the pose of Republican moderation was a sham.  I wrote several columns and blog posts attempting to understand what any remaining Republican Moderates might be thinking.  (See, for example, this Dorf on Law post from December, which includes in its first sentence links to a series of my earlier commentaries.)

I noted that there are careerist reasons for some people to stick with even a dying party.  Before the Republicans Party dies, after all, mid-career law professors and others can still hope to be appointed to judgeships and similar plum jobs.  Meanwhile, those who hope to win elective office can hold their nose and hope for the best, even if their policy druthers were not in line with current Republican extremism.

All of this, of course, assumes that each self-reportedly moderate individual is saying, "I hate this, but the tradeoff is worth it."  On policy questions, a person might say, "I hate the dead-enders in the culture wars, but I think I can have a positive impact on policies in other areas."  It was, in other words, difficult but not impossible to understand why some non-crazy people were staying in a party that has by all evidence been abandoning sanity at an accelerating rate.

The Trump question was supposed to be different, however.  There is, after all, a very good case to be made that Trump is not a conservative in the Republicans' preferred sense of that term.  That does not at all mean that he is liberal, but merely that his signature retrograde views about race and immigration -- which, as we learned over and over again during the Republican primaries, did not distinguish Trump from the rest of the field, even in tone -- have been mixed with disjointed statements about, for example, adopting an isolationist foreign policy.

Earlier this year, the emerging thought was that Trump's rise would split the party, with horrified leaders refusing to support a man who could so completely damage their brand in the future (and, not coincidentally, kill the candidacies of many Senate and House nominees this year).  Some conservatives said that they simply could not support Trump, no matter what.

Again, this is no longer a question about self-styled moderates.  Some hard-core conservatives who run the Republican Party and its political apparatus were saying that they would rather lose in 2016 than be tainted by association with Trump's brand of unashamed hatred.  We now know that this was mostly posturing.

Susan Collins of Maine, who is widely (though wrongly, in my view) thought of as a moderate, is an especially interesting case.  She ought to have been jumping ship both because we have finally reached a policy breaking point from anything resembling moderation, and because of Trump's pure awfulness as a person and a danger to the republic.

Yet even in the face of the increased ugliness of Trump's recent racist attacks on a federal judge, Collins said yesterday only that it is "just too early to tell" whether she would campaign for Trump.  Tellingly, her response to calls to stand up to Trump ignored the content of that message and focused merely on her assertion that "there was an organized effort among very partisan Democrats in Maine" to put pressure on her.  Why deal with principles when it is so easy to attack others for partisanship?

In the midst of the controversy over Judge Curiel, Senator Lindsey Graham finally said that he would not support Trump.  According to a news report, Graham said: "This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy. ...  If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. ...  There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary."

Maybe Graham is trying to point his friend John McCain toward that off-ramp, but as of this writing, McCain has stayed on Trump's highway to hell.  Last week, The New York Times reported on McCain's uncomfortable embrace of Trump, describing it as simply a matter of political survival, with McCain reluctant to alienate the anti-Mexican vote among Arizona Republicans.

Could there be a sadder statement about the state of politics, and the nature of political ambition?  Trump, after all, handed McCain an ironclad excuse to break with the party when Trump said last summer that McCain is not a war hero.  Surely people could forgive John McCain, of all people, for taking a stand.

McCain, who will turn 80 years old in August, moved aggressively to the right in 2010 to win reelection in the face of an emerging Tea Party.  Now, he has the opportunity to risk ending his career by being a genuine patriot, standing for something other than his own political skin.  So far, however, the supposed maverick has defaulted into a strategy of craven political self-preservation.

Again, maybe Graham will ease McCain into an anti-Trump stance.  If so, that would be a good thing, of course.  But why in the world would anyone have needed to witness this last bit of insanity to jump ship?  What should we make of people who, like Collins -- who is hoping that "perhaps tomorrow [Trump] will change his style," revealing that none of this is about substance for her -- would only jump ship if something even worse emerges from Trump's mouth tomorrow?  (And I can confidently predict that even some people who have rejected Trump will announce over the next few months that he has "changed" in some unspecified way that allows them to come back on board.)

On the other hand, few people should have been surprised by House Speaker Paul Ryan's cynical dance toward Trump.  In response to the controversy over Trump's desultory rejection of the KKK (again, what are people like Collins and McCain thinking?), Ryan famously said earlier this year:
"Today I want to be very clear about something, if a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games, they must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people's prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln."
Yet that was always, at best, a statement of far-off aspiration, not reality.  Starting long before Trump's emergence, Ryan's Republican Party has preyed on people's prejudices, and it has merely asked that the racist aspects of its policies be stated in oblique terms.  Even so, Ryan could have held firm and said that there is something more important than putting a nominal Republican in the White House in 2016.  He could, for example, have built a strategy around the idea that Republicans would promise to stand for the rule of law even if Trump wins.  Instead, what did Ryan do?  He caved.

Perhaps the humorist Andy Borowitz captured the silver lining in all of this.  In January, when Trump was feuding with Fox News and in particular Megyn Kelly, Borowitz wrote that "[m]illions of Americans are expressing their resentment and outrage at being put in the appalling position of siding with the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, a state of affairs that many are calling 'intolerable.'"

Now, with Kelly having made nice with Trump in her effort to re-brand herself as the new Barbara Walters, Kelly has revealed herself not to be a Fox News true believer but merely a self-promoting hack.  Andy Borowitz can return from Bizarro World.

And, in a larger sense, the rest of us should do so as well.  It was nearly impossible to figure out how some people could claim to be moderates while supporting the Republican Party, but this is different.  We are now watching a party reveal its true self, with only a tiny handful of people willing to say that some things transcend party and ideology.  The rest are willing to ride Trump to the bottom, taking the country and the world with them.