More Republicans Abandon Ship, But Nothing Changes

by Neil H. Buchanan

Having grown up in a centrist Republican household, but having been a Democrat for all of my adult life, I have long been fascinated by the people who have continued to affiliate with the Republican Party.  The inexplicable nature of continued party loyalty as Republicans have accelerated their flight from sanity and their embrace of outright nastiness has led me over the last few years to write columns with titles like, "What Would It Take?" (as in, what would it take for a person of decency finally give up on the Republicans?), "The Neanderthal Question in U.S. Politics" (too subtle?), and the plaintive (if self-derivative), "Seriously, What Would It Take?"

One of the fascinating aspects of the Trump era has been the self-regenerating nature of what seems to be a constantly imploding Republican Party.  There are periodic spasms of people jumping ship, but the ship never seems to be any emptier.  (Sorry for the multiply mixed metaphors.)  It is not hydra-headed (ibid.), however, because the party is certainly not growing, and even if one includes non-party members, Trump's support in the polls remains within a very narrow range.

After the worst outrages -- the Hollywood Access tape, firing Comey and bragging that he did it to obstruct the Russia investigation, Charlottesville and "very fine people" -- there are a lot of Republicans who announce that they have finally had enough.  Some return (as many, such as now-former Congressman Jason Chaffetz, notoriously did after Trump's "locker room talk" explanation satisfied his base in October 2016), but somehow even the non-reversed public defections never seem to amount to much.

Now, spurred by the cruelty of the Administration's decision to take screaming children away from their horrified parents at the border, we have seen another round of "I've had enoughs" from lifelong Republicans.  Will this time be different?

Interestingly, it is not "only" the sight of children in cages that is pushing more Republicans out the door, although that is currently the most salient outrage.  Being confronted with the reality that the party is now actually delivering on its decades-old promise to end a woman's right to choose is causing some people to say, "Hey, wait a minute, you mean that's actually going to happen?"  Thus two women who run the tragicomically titled group Republican Majority for Choice announced a few weeks ago that they are at long last leaving their party.

On the abortion question, feminist icon Susan Faludi was surely being facetious (or perhaps merely engaged in wishful thinking) when she called on Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins to caucus with the Democrats in order to save Roe.   Those two senators' self-regarding dramas aside, it truly will be interesting to see what will happen when people who were willing to live with all of the grotesqueries of the Tea Party-fueled extra-sharp right turn that led to Trump finally see what it is like when the right-wing religious agenda truly takes hold.

Again, it is not as if there have not been multiple, multiple opportunities to abandon ship over the decades.  The people who are still aboard, if they are not themselves insane, have to have a reason to overlook all of the insanity that is around them.  The mere conservatives have long since been supplanted by the most extreme hyper-conservatives.

My family dentist when I was growing up was a classic country-club Republican, but I remember him saying at one point that it amazed him that his party was tolerating Birchers who opposed fluoridation of the water supply.  "This is the most important factor in improving people's dental health in the history of humanity, and these nuts think it's a communist plot?!"

That particular Republican and his generation have almost all shuffled off the mortal coil, and the idea that Republicans would embrace science and support evidence-based, effective policies has now become almost a laugh line.  Even so, people like Mitt Romney have convinced the media that they are reasonable conservatives.  The problem is that Romney's pandering to Trump-supporting voters in Utah is apparently based largely on how great the big corporate tax cuts from December 2017 are (even though they are anything but).  Unlike my former dentist, Romney cannot point to either theory or evidence regarding his favored policy, revealing Romney as a detached-from-reality ideologue who just happens not to be as personally hateful as Trump.

It is not, moreover, a matter of someone like Romney being hemmed in by the preferences of voters whom they dare not cross.  Even in retirement and never having to face voters again, these guys reveal again and again that they are not reasonable people who have been forced by circumstances to go along with nuttiness.

For example, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (infamous for having once diagnosed a brain-dead patient as not truly brain-dead, even though he had only seen her on television) wrote an op-ed last week in which he took the responsible position that Robert Mueller's investigation must not be politicized.  Yet he wrote this of his former colleagues:
"They want to ensure a Supreme Court that, like most of our citizens, understands that government power must be limited. They want a fair tax code that supports a growing economy. They want less regulation. By those measures, President Trump is a great partner at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue."
And it is not just the slavering over deeply regressive tax cuts and a deregulatory agenda that harms consumers, workers, and breathers that keeps those Republicans Republican.  Even having announced his retirement from Congress, once-Benghazi-obsessed Congressman Trey Gowdy has been leading an absurd attack on an FBI agent as part of the party's effort to do exactly what Frist says that they should not do -- defend Trump at all costs, elevating party over country.

Even so, there are some high-profile defections, and for what seems to be the best of reasons.  Although he appears to be quirky in the extreme, Richard Painter's decision to switch parties was based in part on this rhetorical question: “At what point are we moving from a situation where I’m in the moderate wing of the party that plays by essentially the same rules as the Democrats, to a party that really is behaving as if it does not want to function in a democracy?”

Similarly, it is heartening to see pundits, such as The Washington Post's neocon hawk Max Boot and walking conservative cliche George F. Will, finally break with their party.  But the NeverTrumpers have had notably little impact on the people who were presumed to be their core readers.  Trump rose, and they were able to do nothing, no matter how many times he proved their worst fears to have been prophetic.

Although I was tempted to begin this paragraph with "In the end," there is of course no end in sight.  As part of the current landscape, we see periodic announcements that various soon-to-be former Republicans have reached their limit on one or more issues, and there is excitement that the dam has finally burst.  But it never does.  When a party has been so completely taken over by win-at-all-costs people with an incredibly narrow set of policy goals that favor only their own interests, the juggernaut can apparently survive the occasional defection.