When news of Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape broke on Friday, it appeared that Sen. Deb Fischer, a Trump-supporting Republican from Nebraska, had finally had enough.
“The comments made by Mr. Trump were disgusting and totally unacceptable under any circumstance,” Fischer tweeted on Saturday. “It would be wise for him to step aside and allow Mike Pence to serve as our party's nominee.”
Her colleague, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, agreed. “Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately,” Thune tweeted. Several other Republican senators made similar statements, and it seemed like it could be a tipping point toward a mass abandonment of Trump by the GOP.
But after that a few days have passed and the dust has settled a bit, both Fischer and Thune reconsidered their hasty exits from the Trump train.
“I plan to vote for Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence on November 8,” Fischer said during a radio appearance Tuesday. Thune, too, clarified that he would likely vote for Trump after all.
Indeed, the consequences of the leaked tape scandal on internal GOP politics were not, in the end, so impressive. The group of Republican politicians who say they won’t support Trump grew a bit larger, but a clear majority of GOP politicians and voters are continuing to support his candidacy, as is the party’s national leadership and many of its top 2020 presidential contenders.
It’s a potentially disastrous decision for the party, with multiple women now coming forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault, polls already showing his support plummeting, Trump himself going increasingly off the rails, and much speculation that more damaging revelations about him will emerge in the election’s final weeks.
But party elites seem to have concluded that the alternative — outright abandoning Trump — would be a guaranteed disaster for the GOP’s electoral prospects this year, and for many of their own political futures. They just can’t manage to quit him. And time’s running out.
Some Republican politicians finally abandoned Trump. But most still haven’t.
There’s been a lot of attention on how the Republican Party is divided in the age of Trump.
But considering who Donald Trump is — a total outsider to the party, with a background seemingly designed to repel some of its major constituencies, who doesn’t seem to care at all about conservative policy principles, who’s said and done so many outrageous and appalling things — in my view, he actually has managed to retain a remarkably large amount of support from the GOP.
- Two-thirds of Republican senators are still supporting Trump, as are an even higher proportion of House of Representatives members and a majority of GOP governors.
- The RNC under Reince Priebus is still enthusiastically supporting Trump, despite some rumors to the contrary.
- The GOP’s top House and Senate leaders — including Paul Ryan — are still endorsing Trump, despite Ryan saying he won’t campaign with Trump or defend him (which he already wasn’t doing).
- Several top conservative evangelical leaders are still backing Trump.
- And many top 2020 Republican contenders, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton, haven’t renounced Trump, some more reluctantly than others.
All this remains true even after Trump’s leaked tape scandal. There has all along been a larger than usual group of prominent party members who were refusing to back Trump (including the Bush family, Mitt Romney, John Kasich, and a few senators and governors).
That group did get a little bigger this weekend, most notably through the addition of Sen. John McCain. But then it got a little smaller, when Fischer and Thune got cold feet. And all along, it was very clearly a minority in Republican politics. Overall, the dam is still holding.
For an actual party civil war, I’d point to the election of 1884, when the Republican “mugwump” faction not only refused to support their party’s nominee, James Blaine, but openly backed the Democrat Grover Cleveland — helping Cleveland win New York state and therefore the presidency.
We’ve seen nothing even remotely comparable this year. We haven’t even reached the level of “Democrats for Nixon” in 1972, when some Democrats, including Texas Gov. John Connally, endorsed the Republican nominee. Because even in this year’s most anti-Trump Republican circles, it’s difficult to find anyone who will publicly admit to supporting Hillary Clinton.
What most unites the Republican Party right now is hatred of Hillary Clinton
The reason for this, of course, is that the vast majority of Republican voters continue to be strongly supportive of Trump, particularly in the context of an election where he is the only reasonable alternative to a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Members of the Republican electorate may vary in their level of enthusiasm for Donald Trump personally, but one area where they tend to be quite similar is their level of dislike for Hillary Clinton. (It’s very high.)
And in the views of most, this election is very clearly a zero-sum contest between Trump and Clinton. One of them will be the next president, and if you are a political actor trying to hurt one, there is a very clear argument that you are helping the other.
So it’s easy for many Trump supporters to come up with reasons to downplay or excuse any new negative stories that come out about Trump, particularly when they get assists from conservative media outlets like Breitbart, Fox News, and conservative talk radio hosts, many of which have spent years advancing a narrative that a Hillary Clinton presidency would do grave harm to the United States.
Indeed, according to even polls conducted at the peak of the frenzy over the tape this weekend, between two-thirds and three-quarters of GOP voters wanted the party to stand behind Trump. It is just very hard for a political party to defy its voters when so many of them feel so strongly about something.
And finally, there’s the turnout issue. The presidential race is what motivates so many voters to actually show up at the polls, and Republicans think a party-wide rejection of Trump (and the war with him that’s sure to follow) would do more to depress turnout among Republican voters than it would to convert swing voters, especially at this late date.
Now, Trump is certainly making it difficult for Republican elites to stay on board with him — on Wednesday, he suggested that there was some sort of “sinister deal” between Paul Ryan and Democrats. And the new sexual assault accusations could finally disrupt this equilibrium. But up until now, at least, the Republican Party still appears to be more afraid of him — and his voters — than he is of them.