Republicans Are Ditching Trump. But What Will It Take for the Floodgates to Truly Open?
Between rumors of an N-word tape, his lawyer accusing him of a crime, and his treatment of McCain, it’s remarkable—and telling—that he’s holding on
In the past few weeks, the president’s personal attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen accused him of conspiring to commit a felony, his longtime ally Omarosa Manigault Newman accused him of using the “N-word,” and the president himself somehow managed to insult Sen. John McCain upon his death.
Perhaps it’s just standard drama in the age of Trump. But the developments raise, once more, the oft-repeated question: What would it actually take for Republicans to stop supporting President Trump?
After all, they’ve stood by him through so much already. Trump has said despicable things about the Muslim parents of a Gold Star veteran; broadly labeled Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals; called for a ban on Muslims entering the country; said an American-born judge would not treat him fairly because of his Mexican ancestry; defended anti-Semitic campaign material; reportedly said all Haitian immigrants had AIDS and Nigerian immigrants should go back to their huts; equivocated about neo-Nazis in Charlottesville; shared nationalist propaganda on Twitter; mocked a reporter’s physical disability; bragged about grabbing women by their… well you get the idea… and he still enjoys robust support from his own party.
Republican voters are clearly willing to tolerate the politically and morally putrid, so long as it is in the broader service of “owning the libs.” They have rationalized his misconduct and played verbal and moral gymnastics to excuse his behavior. There is no tape, they reason. And even if there were, it was from a past life. Cohen is a known liar, they argue. The president’s main fault was trusting him enough to employ him. McCain was notoriously prickly, they point out. If Trump disrespected him by refusing to say a nice word upon his passing, well, part of the fault lies with the senator too.
It is reasonable to conclude that the majority of the party will depressingly stick by Trump through thick and thin.
And yet, the question of what it would take for some to stop supporting him is still worth asking, if only because a mass exodus is not actually required to put Trump in mortal political jeopardy.
Moving from 90 percent GOP approval of Trump to 85 percent may be enough to swing Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Remember, he won each state by the narrowest of margins against a terribly weak Democratic candidate, and exit polls had him carrying 88 percent of Republican votes.
Moving just a touch lower to 75 percent may begin to embolden Congressional Republicans to stop being shrinking violets when it comes to speaking out against the president. Trump’s popularity within the party is his armor on Capitol Hill. If he loses that, he also loses them.
The conventional wisdom in D.C. right now is that this simply won’t happen; that tribalism is too pervasive; that even if Republicans lose in the midterms the party will be made up of more (not less) Trump-ites; that Trump is going to easily secure the party’s nomination again and stands a good chance of re-election.
Pundits, overcompensating for how wrong they were in 2016, will note that a large number of Republicans are willing to believe truly insane things if it coincides with their support for Trump; that 74 percent of Republicans believed President Obama tapped the Trump campaign’s phones because he said so in a tweet (despite there being no evidence); that 64 percent of Republicans didn’t believe Russians interfered in our election despite every U.S. intelligence agency reaching that conclusion. They will point out that when President Trump took President Putin’s side over our intelligence agencies in Helsinki, 79 percent of Republicans approved of his performance; that 52 percent of Republicans said they would support President Trump postponing the 2020 election to ensure “only eligible American citizens can vote.”
And they will be missing the larger point. It may take a lot to publicly abandon Trump but the signs of disillusionment are already there. Note that in each of these instances, some Republicans are breaking away already—21 percent did not approve of his handling of Russia; 26 percent believed President Obama didn’t tap his phones.
Trump’s low point of 77 percent approval among Republicans came in December 2017 when he was campaigning for Senate candidate and alleged child abuser Roy Moore. Just under half of Republicans approve of the job Robert Mueller is doing, despite his personal approval tanking.
As for that probe, it's hard to tell what Mueller could uncover to truly turn the tide among the party faithful. In 1998, Democrats largely stood by Bill Clinton even as details emerged of his sexual misconduct with a White House intern, building on a long narrative of marital infidelity and much worse allegations. In fact, he grew more popular in his post-presidency, and even in the #MeToo era has largely gone unscathed. By contrast, as the Senate Watergate hearings began in 1973, Richard Nixon still enjoyed near 90 percent approval among Republicans, only to watch that drop to near 50 percent at the time of impeachment.
Trump may not follow the Nixon path. In the end, the same GOPers who rationalized their support for him in 2016 as the lesser of two evils could choose to view him as a means to an economic end (tax cuts, jobs, regulations) and judicial appointments in 2020.
But a truly consequential shift in public opinion doesn’t have to be in the form of a tide, it could merely be a small wave. Republicans should ask themselves what Trump could do to lose their approval, or vote. For most, the answer may always be “nothing.” But not for some. And that may be enough.