Dissenting Opinions Need Not Apply: Republican Mentality In the Age of Trump

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The nature of Republican party politics in America today can only be described as contentious. Reports of Republican lawmakers privately bashing the President while trying to maintain and foster a semblance of party unity has become commonplace. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has privately conveyed his concern that Trump would not be able to salvage the legacy of his presidency after the number of debacles he suffered this summer.[1] House Republicans reportedly had a heated private meeting with Trump administration officials in September over frustration with a plan Trump made with House Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.[2] Republicans are becoming increasingly fed-up with Trump’s tactics in private, but are unwilling to challenge him publicly. Even when they are caught saying something negative about the President, they have a tendency to walk things back because criticizing the President is seen as criticizing the party. This was the case with Senator Susan Collins (R- Maine) in August, when she was caught on a hot microphone saying she was “worried” about the President.[3] Her office later released a statement stating that the Senator was referring to the President’s 2018 budget, not Trump himself.

Those who do criticize the President purposefully and publicly are not only subject to rebuke from Trump himself, but are effectively sacrificing their political careers. This phenomenon has occurred multiple times in 2017, notably with Senators Corker and McCain, and more recently with Senator Jeff Flake. Those who were previously glorified by conservatives, especially in the case of Corker, who was reportedly in the running to become Trump’s Secretary of State, are now being vilified for speaking out against Trump. Senator Corker’s approval ratings among conservatives have been low since he started criticizing President Trump this past spring, and Steve Bannon even threatened to run a primary opponent against Corker. This feud has culminated in Corker announcing he will not be seeking re-election in 2018, and a subsequent intensification of his attacks on the President.[4] Senator McCain, a war hero who was nominated for President by a Republican base that once loved him, is now facing approval ratings in the low 40s with Republicans.[5] Republicans who once idolized him have begun to vilify him in the face of his resistance to the Trump agenda. The announcement of McCain’s diagnosis of fatal brain cancer this past summer has further emblazoned the Senator to attack Trump with more fervor than before.

The same phenomenon repeated itself in October with Senator Jeff Flake’s announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2018, followed by a speech that went viral and attacked President Trump for “undermining our democratic ideals.”[6] Flake’s private polling throughout this year showed that the more he attacked the President, the lower his favorability among Republicans became.[7] This led the Senator to conclude that he could not win a Republican primary in 2018, which was celebrated by Breitbart with the statement “Our movement will defeat you in primaries or force you to retire.”[8] While Flake has been a critic of Trump since the 2016 Presidential primary, his criticism has become more pointed and vicious in the last few months, presumably once he realized that he would not be running for re-election.

Republicans have reportedly become increasingly angry with those who are willing to publicly bash Trump, as they believe that tying themselves to the President is the only way to achieve any of their legislative agenda – most recently, an overhaul of the tax code.[9] As they have had no substantial legislative achievements so far this year, GOP lawmakers are willing to pass just about anything. Tying themselves to Trump to do so and continuing to fail to achieve anything will be a political disaster.[10] Some Republican legislators still support Trump, but many see him as a means to legislating their agenda, and McConnell encapsulates this attitude, saying that “[Trump] is the only American who can sign a bill into law.”[11]

Those Republicans willing to speak out at this point are only doing so because they have nothing to lose politically. The silent majority of Republicans are complicit in what Senator Flake calls Trump’s “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior.[12] If Congress is too afraid to stand up to party politics because they will lose financial support in elections, this is indicative of a larger problem. Organizations like the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) yield so much power that lawmakers are afraid to go against their party for fear of losing re-election. Democracy relies on elected officials having their constituents’ best interests at heart, and if the fear of not being re-elected due to the withdrawal of financial support from their party eclipses this obligation, the party system is hurting democracy. If party comes before country for many voters and lawmakers, as evidenced by how quickly Republicans will turn on their own who raise questions about Trump, this indicates a bigger problem than Trump himself. If there is no longer any check on the executive through the legislature, this has larger implications for the current two party system’s effect on American democracy than the weak Republicans who are currently in Congress.

 

References

[1] Burns, Alexander and Jonathan Martin. “McConnell, in Private, Doubts if Trump Can Save Presidency.” The New York Times. August 22, 2017.

[2] Davis, Susan. “House Republicans Fume at Trump Administration in Private Meeting.” NPR. September 8, 2017.

[3] Bierman, Noah. “GOP Senator says ‘I’m worried’ about Donald Trump, calls Republican congressman ‘so unattractive.’” Los Angeles Times. July 25, 2017.

[4] Montanaro, Domenico. “Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker Won’t Seek Re-Election in 2018.” NPR. September 26, 2017.

[5] Phillips, Amber. “‘We are not his subordinates’: John McCain’s rallying cry to the GOP resistance.” The Washington Post. September 1, 2017.

[6] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Jeff Flake, a Fierce Trump Critic, Will Not Seek Re-election for Senate.” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

[7] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Jeff Flake, a Fierce Trump Critic, Will Not Seek Re-election for Senate.” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

[8] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Jeff Flake, a Fierce Trump Critic, Will Not Seek Re-election for Senate.” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

[9] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Jeff Flake, a Fierce Trump Critic, Will Not Seek Re-election for Senate.” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

[10] Hulse, Carol. “Another Republican Call to Arms, but Who Will Answer?” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

[11] Hulse, Carol. “Another Republican Call to Arms, but Who Will Answer?” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

[12] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Jeff Flake, a Fierce Trump Critic, Will Not Seek Re-election for Senate.” The New York Times. October 24, 2017.

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