Rick Wilson, the GOP strategist who has emerged as a leading anti-Trump gadfly, was recently talking to a good friend of his who serves in Congress, representing a moderate but solidly Republican district in the upper Midwest. “He loathes Donald Trump,” Wilson told me. “Hates him with the fire of a million suns.” Yet the congressman told Wilson he’s terrified to cross the president, saying, “ ‘If I say something about [Trump], one tweet could kill me.’ ”
Before Trump’s election, I thought I had a low opinion of Republican members of Congress. Yet it turns out I had much more faith in them than I realized, because I’ve been stupefied by their passivity in the face of Trump’s corruption and incompetence. Sure, Republicans are eager for massive tax cuts, the end of Roe v. Wade, and the opportunity to exploit natural resources without oversight from environmental regulators. But I’d assumed that they also valued America’s putative leadership in world affairs, and I couldn’t imagine that they’d accept even the possibility of Vladimir Putin manipulating our democracy. Shouldn’t we be able to count on jingoist pride from politicians who’ve spent decades beating their chests about patriotism? As cliché as it sounds, I have continually wondered through the first two months of this administration: Have they no shame?
Talking to Republican Trump critics, however, the question seems naïve. “The fact of the matter is when they’re confronted with criminal malfeasance, and things that at the very minimum border on collusion with the enemy, they’re not going to do shit,” Wilson says of Republicans in Congress. “Donald Trump could murder a child on the White House lawn and eat him raw and those pussies in Congress will never do a thing.”
With only a few exceptions, Republicans are attempting to shield Trump from investigations into his campaign’s Russia ties and allowing him to nakedly profit from the presidency. Devin Nunes, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, compromised himself and the House investigation into Trump’s Russian entanglements by improperly sharing information with the White House. His colleagues tried to derail the investigation by directing attention away from Trump’s possible Russia connections and toward anti-Trump leakers. This week, Nunes abruptly canceled an open hearing. Yet even as Nunes’ credibility has evaporated, House Speaker Paul Ryan refuses to remove him from his post. As of Tuesday, it would appear that only one Republican congressman, the iconoclastic Walter Jones, has said Nunes should recuse himself.
Meanwhile, flagrant violations of American laws and norms go unchecked. Few in government are even trying to police Trump’s manifold financial conflicts of interest. The president is blatantly selling access to himself by doubling membership fees at his private club, Mar-a-Lago. And as Politico reported, the club doesn’t keep visitor logs, meaning there’s no way to track whom Trump and his relatives are meeting with. Presidential daughter Ivanka Trump is assuming an ethically dubious semigovernmental position; in meetings with foreign leaders she plays a larger role than our elusive secretary of state. “Right now the American political system is increasingly looking like a dystopic third-world banana republic, and the Republican Party is complicit in allowing this to happen,” says Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank.
It’s wishful thinking to assume that all Republicans are secretly appalled by what’s happening. Plenty of them are delighted to be in power and savoring the nectar of Democratic tears. Still, at least some Republicans realize that the Trump presidency is a debacle, even if they refuse to publicly say so. Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart who quit last May over the website’s slavish fealty to Trump, says the Republicans he knows are paralyzed. “I’ve not talked to anyone who doesn’t malign the situation that they and the Republican Party overall is in,” says Bardella, who previously worked as an aide to Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. Many Republicans, Bardella says, “recognize that as this goes on, and they further alienate themselves from everybody who has a brain, that there are some very long-term challenges for the Republican Party. But none of them know how to stop this or how to fight back.”
At first glance, this seems odd. Trump is not popular; a recent Gallup poll has his approval already at 36 percent, below Obama’s lowest-ever rating and well below where Obama was at a similar point in his presidency. The example of Sen. John McCain shows us that any Republican willing to demonstrate even nominal independence from Trump can expect a fulsome media tongue-bath. It’s true that good mainstream press may count for little for the vast majority of the Republican caucus, but it would surely mean something in one of the 23 GOP House districts that went for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
Earlier this month, Saturday Night Live featured a faux movie trailer about a heroic Republican patriot “who put country over party” and “stood up for his nation’s founding values.” The joke was that the hero’s name was TBD—to be determined. At the heart of the sketch was a truth: There’s a huge opening for a Republican renegade in Washington, and whoever steps up to fill it can expect a degree of glory. So why isn’t anyone stepping up?
Republicans were able to defy Trump on the American Health Care Act; the president’s petulant tweets about the Freedom Caucus—the right-wing faction that helped torpedo the bill—don’t appear to have hurt the group’s members. Yet the AHCA was unique in engendering public revulsion across the ideological spectrum; a Quinnipiac University poll found that only 17 percent of respondents approved of the bill. “With the health care bill, there was enough political cover wherever you fell on it,” says Bardella.
Opinions on Trump and Russia are far more polarized. A March CNN/ORC poll found that most Republicans don’t believe that Russia tried to influence the election. Fifty-four percent of Republicans said they were “not at all concerned” about “reports that people associated with Donald Trump’s campaign had contact with suspected Russian operatives.” (Only 7 percent of Republicans were “very concerned.”) Thus Republicans who might side against Trump on the emerging Russia scandal would face a seemingly hostile electorate, an especially hostile president, and the possibility of a primary challenge.
From conversations the Niskanen Center has had on Capitol Hill, Taylor believes there are somewhere between 50 and 100 Republican congressmen “who have convinced themselves that Donald Trump is worth embracing and have little concern about that partnership.” The rest, he says, “are in various degrees of shock, horror, and disgust at what’s going on in this administration. But none of them want to be decapitated by a primary challenge. Nobody wants the social media fanaticism of the alt-right turned on them.”
Perhaps more importantly, taking on Trump would displease Republican donors. “Of all of the different entities on the right, it is the right-of-center donor base that is most over the moon about Donald Trump,” Taylor says. Right-wing donors, he says, “are far more interested in taxes and spending and regulation than everything else combined, and Donald Trump is singing right out of their hymnals on these matters. They’re the most pro-Trump wing of the GOP outside of the people who are drooling and watching Fox News 18 hours a day.”
So right now, even if Republicans have consciences that nag at them, they have every incentive to ignore them. Those incentives, however, could change. Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s White House, expects some Republicans to develop spines sometime in 2018, after the threat of being primaried has passed. “They don’t want to fight with a president of their own party and risk a primary challenge,” he says. “Behind the scenes they’re expressing fear. You’re not going to see very many do what Nunes did, which is siding with the president”—at least, not so explicitly. “I think they’re going to run for cover, and then you may find them turning up the heat on Trump in 2018, once they don’t have to worry about primaries anymore, and they have to worry about general elections.”
If that’s going to happen, Taylor says, there has to be more coordination among anti-Trump Republicans. “At some point, the Republicans in the House and the Senate who have been putting their heads up out of the trenches and criticizing the party and the president, these people need to organize,” he says. “Whether it’s a deeply subterranean or a more formal and visible caucus.”
Taylor also says there are efforts underway to create an institutional home for right-of-center anti-Trump forces. “There needs to be a center of gravity in a few spots on the right where people can gather, and can coordinate activities, and can think without great fear of transgressing boundary lines and tribal norms,” he says. His group is working on something like this, he adds, “but we’re not the only actors out there who have an eye towards this.”
For now, however, the conservative resistance is a tiny club. Republican politicians have an opportunity to do something heroic at a dire moment in American history, but they don’t appear to be remotely tempted to seize it. “I wish more than anyone that there would be more courage demonstrated by Republican members of Congress in speaking out against what I think they know is wrong,” says Bardella. “But they lack the fortitude to do so.”