There were establishment Republicans who didn’t like Donald Trump in 2016, and there were right-leaning voters who didn’t want to vote for him, but they didn’t stop him from becoming president anyway. The party politicians and operatives who refused to endorse him mostly sat out the race rather than endorsing Hillary Clinton instead, and more than five million Americans voted for fiscally conservative third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin.
Almost no one inside the party tried to stop Trump from doing whatever he wanted after he became president, either. Some Republican legislators criticized him publicly, including Maine Sen. Susan Collins, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and ex-Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker. Some members of his administration disparaged him anonymously, or, like ex–Defense Secretary James Mattis and ex–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were described by unidentified sources as being alarmed by his unfitness for office. But almost every GOP member of Congress voted for Trump’s legislation and nominees, and almost every person in his administration kept their concerns exclusively in the “not for attribution” zone that exists between “on the record” and off.
When pressed, they all espoused a common creed: They knew Trump was ill-informed and dangerous, but they continued to work with him (or for him) in order to advance legitimate conservative interests and prevent his flaws from having disastrous consequences for the country. The pinnacle of this approach was reached when Collins, having just voted to acquit the president on well-documented charges of attempting to extort the president of Ukraine into making false accusations against Joe Biden, said she had done so because she believed Trump had learned “a pretty big lesson” from the case already.
Several violent fatalities in the halls of Congress have underlined another pretty big lesson: None of that hedging and qualming helped restrain Donald Trump at all, let alone direct him onto a better path.
What did stop Trump was a landslide vote for Joe Biden, the unwillingness of Republican state officials to overturn Democratic wins, and the extremely overdue defection of Senate Republicans. In November’s election, December’s failed efforts to overturn that election, and the upper congressional chamber’s response to the Jan. 6 Capitol occupation, a blueprint for disempowering Trump became clear. And there is, it turns out, no meaningful way to break with Trump without allying yourself at least temporarily with the other major party in the United States’ two-party system.
During the 2020 election cycle, for instance, “Never Trump” Republicans endorsed and campaigned for the Democrats’ presidential candidate rather than staying neutral. Ex-Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell spoke at the Democratic National Convention, while Romney and McCain operatives at the Lincoln Project spent $49 million on anti-Trump, pro-Joe Biden media. These figures and groups promoted Biden as an alternative to Trump on non-ideological grounds, praising him as a man of patriotism, integrity, and empathy.
Then Biden won. And while researchers are still compiling the data that will explain his victory at the level of individual voters and issues, we do know he polled better in many traditionally Republican areas than Clinton did. The American Communities Project, which categorizes American counties into 15 “community types,” finds that two of the areas in which Biden made the biggest improvements on Clinton’s vote share were “Exurbs”—white, rural areas near major cities—and “Military Posts.” Both are home to the kinds of voters that were at the least targeted by Never Trump figures, and in both, Biden beat Clinton’s percentage of the vote by more than 5 points. Bucks County, Pennsylvania is an exurban county that early November cable-news viewers will remember for being crucial to Biden’s victory; El Paso County, Colorado is home to the heavily military-affiliated population of Colorado Springs, which swung further toward Biden (twelve points) than any other city in the country. In the crucial, narrow-margin states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Biden flipped back four heavily white counties Trump won in 2016. And multiple surveys taken before the election, at least, had Biden on track to win more than half of the 2016 third-party voters who planned to vote in 2020.
After Biden won, of course, he had to win several more times, and a number of crucial blows against Rudy Giulani’s attempt to throw out election results were struck by Republican officials who declined to reject their own states’ vote counts. For their efforts, lifelong conservatives like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Michigan state canvasser Aaron Van Langevelde are being harassed, threatened with primary campaigns, and/or removed from office by members of the GOP grassroots. Donald Trump can’t be confronted without confronting Republican voters.
He is not, however, invincible. After Sasse and outgoing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (among others) suggested they will strongly consider voting against him in his upcoming impeachment trial, Trump gave up on his efforts to overturn the election, all but ceded control of the government to Mike Pence, and reportedly abandoned the idea of pardoning himself, his children, and his close advisers. Senate Republicans, after four years, figured out how to get the president to stop doing the kinds of things they always claimed to be urging him to stop doing.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, by contrast, attempted the Susan Collins™, criticizing Trump’s instigation of the Capitol occupation in mild terms but voting against impeachment. The billionth time was not the charm for this technique: Trump, totally ignoring McCarthy’s vote and fixating on his criticism, has reportedly been complaining furiously that the minority leader is “a pussy.” As the saying sort of goes, if you come at the king, you best … actually come at the king? Don’t just irritate the king?
In the end, Republicans performing their disapproval of Trump were mostly useless or actively destructive unless they were voting for, or with, Democrats. The outgoing president’s party, having helped him destroy the fabric of the republic, has now done a tiny bit of good in the effort to redeem their national brand with independent voters and corporate donors. As they consider how to treat Trump and his extended crime family going forward, especially during his impeachment trial, they should bear in mind what the last year has shown: When it comes to both self-interest and the preservation of democracy, votes matter, and words don’t.
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