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The fall of the not-quite-Trumpers

Win, lose, or draw, the next Republican Congress will be Trumpier.

It’s Donald Trump’s party now.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I’ve done town hall meetings for 25 years of my life,” says Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC). “But what I saw over the last couple years since Trump came into office was a degree of polarization and friction and animosity that I’d never seen before.”

Sanford recalls one town hall in particular. It was a big crowd of about 1,000 people. But there was this one guy who was just “chewing my head off.” So Sanford went up afterward to talk to him.

“I’m from South Carolina,” Sanford told him. “You are, too. Your vocabulary just doesn’t fit with who I know you to be by reputation.”

As Sanford recalls it, the guy looked back at him and said, “Here’s the deal. If the president of the United States can say anything to anybody at any time on any subject, why can’t I?”

That, Sanford told me, “is the demon that either Trump has unleashed or exposed.”

The opposition to Trump inside the Republican Party has never fallen cleanly along ideological lines. Some of Trump’s strongest supporters are Northeastern Republicans, like Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, whose ideological pragmatism eventually blurred into careerist pandering. Some of his biggest detractors are hardline conservatives whose long practice at withstanding public blowback for their ideas gave them the ballast to make their disgust with Trump’s behavior known.

Mark Sanford is as conservative as they come. He was first elected to Congress as part of the 1994 Republican Revolution, where he was named the most fiscally conservative member of the chamber; then to South Carolina’s governorship in 2002. He became a Republican hero for rejecting President Obama’s stimulus money. By 2010, the libertarian Cato Institute was calling him the best governor in America, and he was being talked about as a possible Republican nominee for president.

Rep. Mark Sanford Holds Constituent Town Hall In South Carolina
Sanford waits for his introduction during a town hall meeting March 18, 2017. That’s not his sign, but he doesn’t seem too perturbed by it.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Then came the collapse — the scandal, the disappearance to “hike the Appalachian trail,” the revelations of an affair. Yet Sanford made a comeback. He won a special election for the House in 2013. He ran unopposed for reelection in 2014. He won with 58 percent of the vote in 2016. In 25 years, he’d never lost an election, or even come all that close. His career was a testament to how far principled conservatism could take you in South Carolina politics.

But Sanford was a conservative, not a Trumpist. And as a conservative, Trump’s behavior offended him. He wrote a New York Times op-ed calling on Trump to release his tax returns, said the president “fanned the flames of intolerance,” and lamented his lack of constitutional knowledge. “Somebody asked about Article I powers and what he would do to protect them,” Sanford told reporters. “I think his response was, ‘I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII,’ going down the list. Of course, there is no Article XII.”

Of Trump, Sanford, a former Eagle Scout, said, “at some level he represents the antithesis, or the undoing, of everything I thought I knew about politics, preparation and life.”

In return, Sanford faced a primary challenge from Katie Arrington, a state legislator who sold herself as the loyal Trumpist Sanford refused to be. And Sanford could feel it working. “People would come up and they say, ‘Look, he’s the quarterback. You got to go with the quarterback.’”

On the night of the election, the president tweeted:

It was enough. Sanford lost by 2,500 votes.

Sanford’s not alone. The small cadre of Sanford-style Trump skeptics face near-extinction. Many are retiring or being beaten. Those who remain are assimilating. They have quieted, or abandoned, their criticisms of the president after seeing the fates of their colleagues.

The next phase of the Trump era will begin in Washington with a Republican Party purged of most of the members of Congress who sought — and largely failed — to act as the party’s conscience. The question is whether it matters.

The fall of the not-quite-Trumpers

Whether Republican lose the House, the Senate, both, or neither, one thing is certain: The ranks of the not-quite-Trumpers will be thinned come January. The highest-profile skeptics are all retiring —Sen. Jeff Flake, Rep. Paul Ryan, and Sen. Bob Corker. Sanford lost his primary.

Behind them are an array of House and Senate Republicans who, though not quite never-Trumpers, are definitely not quite Trumpists, either.

In the New Yorker, George Packer profiles Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), a backbench House member who fits the brand. The piece is headlined “The demise of the moderate Republican,” but there’s no historically legible sense in which Costello is ideologically moderate. He’s a Paul Ryan conservative whose temperament and district led him to keep some distance from Trump.

“I don’t call myself an ‘anti-Trump Republican,’” Costello told Packer. “It’s not my thing. I’ll speak out about something if I disagree, but I don’t wish to be defined by that.” He’s the kind of Republican who criticized Trump after the violence in Charlottesville and the Helsinki summit but who tried mightily to avoid commenting on — much less condemning — the latest Trump tweet.

Costello is retiring, but he’s the kind of Republican who is most endangered this cycle: not Trumpy enough to thrill the right, not critical enough to win any real plaudits from the left. “Democrats berated him for complicity, Republicans attacked him for disloyalty,” laments Packer.

Democrats will unseat some true Trumpists, but they’re likelier to knock out (or force into retirement) candidates like Costello — Republicans who sit in blueish districts, who support Trump uneasily, criticize him occasionally, and draw at least some lines he can’t cross. As a result, whether Republicans win the House or lose it, they’re going to be returning with a Trumpier caucus.

Do not-quite-Trumpers do anything?

To Trump’s true critics — the ones who believe he’s a threat to both basic democratic norms and political decency — the not-quite-Trumpers are an endless disappointment. Corker and Flake could’ve joined with their comrade-in-lamentations Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) to form a never-Trump caucus that effectively controlled the Senate. If Trump wanted appointments cleared, if Mitch McConnell wanted judges confirmed, then Trump would have to give up his tax returns or sign legislation protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation from interference.

Nothing like that ever happened. In the eyes of the resistance, the not-quite-Trumpers posture and tweet and make sad sounds to reporters, but they don’t actually do anything. In fact, they supported Trump’s legislative agenda overwhelmingly.

Sad eyes, supportive votes.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The not-quite-Trumpers see it differently. They support Trump’s congressional agenda because he supports their congressional agenda — holding up the judges they want to confirm in order to curb a president of their own party isn’t a trade they came to Washington to make. But they believe their presence puts boundaries on Trump’s most extreme actions.

After all, Trump didn’t fire Mueller, or even replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He clearly wanted to, but he didn’t. Perhaps that’s because Republicans like Flake were warning that could lead to impeachment. “Mr. President, please don’t go there,” he begged.

I polled a handful of congressional aides on this question. Perhaps predictably, the responses split across party lines: Republicans told me there’d been more, and more effective, behind-the-scenes containment of Trump than people realized. Democrats said the Republican resistance had been so feckless, and so thoroughly quashed, as to be mostly useless.

But mostly useless isn’t the same as completely useless (a stirring endorsement, I know). “It’s about pushing back against authoritarian and autocratic moves,” says Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “That is where you see the Flakes and the Sasses a bit. If we lose them, or if those voices are muted, even though it may not make any difference in terms of votes, it becomes easier for Trump to frame these fights as partisan issues.”

My read of the situation is the GOP’s Trump skeptics probably did constrain some of Trump’s most illiberal impulses a year ago. But that’s over, and Trump knows it.

It’s Trump’s party now

What Trump has proven, decisively, is you can’t be in his party, oppose him, and expect to thrive. Corker and Flake decided to retire rather than fight it out as internal critics. Sanford lost his primary. Democrats are picking off the Republicans who held Trump at arm’s length.

Trump’s remaining Republican critics are changing their tune. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, used to warn of a “constitutional crisis” if the president interfered with Mueller. Now he’s golfing with the president and giving him permission to fire Sessions after the election.

Mitt Romney used to call Trump a “fraud” who “inherited his business” and is “very, very not smart.” Since entering the Utah Senate race, he’s quieted his criticisms of Trump, and been rewarded for it:

After the midterm, “expect the GOP to be more Trumpist,” says Sarah Binder, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. “But it’s also possible, if it’s a strong night for Democrats, that at least some Republicans grow more cautious about Trump and his electoral prospects in 2020.”

If the midterm election ends in a rout for Republicans — if they lose 55 House seats and unexpectedly collapse in the Senate — perhaps a new not-quite-Trump caucus composed of endangered 2020ers like Colorado’s Cory Gardner and temperamental opponents like Romney might emerge.

But if the midterm ends in a stalemate where Democrats narrowly take the House and Republicans gain seats in the Senate, and particularly if it ends with Republicans defying expectations and keeping control of both chambers, we will see Trump unleashed. He’ll have nothing to fear from his own party, and if Democrats take the House, he’ll be delighted to provoke confrontation with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It’s an article of faith in the White House that impeachment proceedings would backfire on Democrats, and so Trump may see actions that court such a response as a win-win.

Since winning office, Trump has often talked like an authoritarian, but he mostly has refrained from acting like one. But as his administration gets purged of skeptics and his party gets purged of opponents, it’s possible that could change.

Similarly, a Trumpier Republican Party now means a Trumpier Republican Party in the future. “One of the most important questions of American politics right now is whether Republicans will ‘snap back’ if Trump is defeated in 2020, or whether they will remain the voice of authoritarian populism,” says political scientist Yascha Mounk. “The fewer traditional conservatives there are in the party, and especially in elected office, the bleaker the prospects for leaving Trumpism behind once Trump is gone.”

When I talked with Sanford, he was comfortable with his loss but depressed by the way he saw his party becoming a cult of personality.

“If you read [Friederich] Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom,” he said, “what it talks about is how in open political systems, over time, they become more and more dysfunctional, to the point that the electorate gets frustrated. Then a strongman comes along and says, ‘Look, I’ll take care of these problems for you.’ You’re going to give him a couple freedoms, but ‘I’ll take care of these problems for you.’ And the deal is struck. That’s obviously the story of the rise of Hitler.”

“We’re playing with some of those same things,” he says.