The Republican Anti-Trump?

Ben Sasse
Ben Sasse; drawing by James Ferguson

It is often asked around Washington, what will the Republican Party become once it stops being the plaything of Donald Trump? This day seems to be arriving more quickly than we might have thought not long ago, especially after President Trump’s wretched response to the Charlottesville rally, which at long last led some Republicans to begin to wonder about his moral fitness to be president.

This followed less shocking but nevertheless striking reversals for Trump, notably the Senate Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare. As a result, the president’s approval rating among Republicans has slipped in some polls below 80 percent. That’s not quite the danger zone yet, but it’s low for an incumbent president. It’s the number to watch for the simple reason that it’s the only one congressional Republicans care about. Republicans in Congress have carved their districts in such a way that they needn’t worry much about Democratic or even independent voters. In fact, many of them live in greater fear of losing a primary to a pro-Trump challenger from their right, should they waver in their support for his policies, than they do about losing a general election. But if Trump’s approval rating among Republicans falls considerably—to the point that Republican House members feel they have to worry more about losing a general-election race to an anti-Trump Democrat than losing a primary contest to a Trump loyalist—they’ll start deserting him.

Some event could propel the desertion forward. Charlottesville alone won’t quite do it, especially after Trump fired chief strategist Steve Bannon, which to some degree controlled the damage among establishment Republicans. But many potential flash points remain. A large number of Republican senators have cautioned, for example, that for Trump to order the firing of special prosecutor Robert Mueller would “certainly be an extraordinarily unwise move,” as Maine’s Susan Collins put it in June.1 On August 3, two bills—with bipartisan support—were introduced in the Senate, one to allow Mueller to challenge his firing in court and one to demand that Justice Department officials involved in any such firing be forced to testify. So the ground has been shifting rather dramatically.

The president, of course, remains obdurate and dangerously unpredictable. There are numerous eventualities about which the chatterers of Washington chat. Needless to say, in the reality that Trump has created, none is too outlandish to be taken seriously. I mentioned recently to a journalist friend that I could foresee the House impeaching the president and the Senate voting to convict, but Trump simply refusing to leave the White House. He countered with a hypothetical in which Trump does accept his removal from office but turns around and runs in the Republican primary against President Pence in 2020—and wins.

Other Republicans, naturally, are preparing for Trump’s demise. Imagine the following scenario: in 2018, the Democrats recapture the House. (That’s far from an impossibility; they’d need to pick up twenty-four…

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