Welcome to TAKE DOWN, a column in which Sean McElwee holds pundits accountable for their hot garbage takes (and isn't afraid to be held accountable for his).
WHAT THE PUNDITS SAY
If you were to go by what various thinkpieces say, you might believe that Congress was effectively a model UN and that Republicans are merely college debaters, with no power to forge their own future. As Kevin Drum wrote last October in Mother Jones, “Short of impeachment, there’s really not much that congressional Republicans can do to rein in Trump.”
Josh Barro of Business Insider went further in a July 2017 piece, arguing that Republicans have acted as a meaningful check on Trump. “We are six months into the term of a Republican president, and the Republican-controlled Congress is already deep into a damaging investigation of his wrongdoing,” he wrote. “If you step back, what that says about the quality of our institutions isn't depressing — it's kind of amazing.”
What these pundits don’t recognize, however, is that there are a lot of things Republicans could be doing to stop Trump. They just aren’t doing them.
A SEMI-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF WHAT REPUBLICANS COULD BE DOING TO STOP TRUMP
Here is a list of things that the Republican Party could do to rein in Trump, none of which they have pursued.
Any two Republican senators could become Independents and form a power-sharing agreement to give Democrats control of the chamber. (This seems extreme, but if you truly believe, as Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker claims, that Trump’s presidency will lead to WWIII, why not?).
Republicans could require an Authorization for the Use of Military Force for military engagement, limiting American intervention overseas and actually performing a Constitutional role overseeing the use of the military.
Republicans could pass legislation protecting the independence of former F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election instead of actively working to undermine it.
Republicans could use their oversight powers to meaningfully investigate wrongdoing in the Trump administration (rather than investigating imaginary crimes by Hillary Clinton).
Republicans could refuse to seat judicial nominees who do not meet traditional standards, like John K. Bush, an anti-gay blogger who was named to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals last July, and Leonard Grasz, a conversion-therapy enthusiast who, despite earning one of three unanimous “not qualified” decisions ever given by the American Bar Association, was confirmed in the 8th Circuit court in December.
Republicans could refuse to confirm cabinet-level nominees who do not meet traditional standards (like Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who has spent millions of her own money to re-shape the area that she oversees, or Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, an allegedly fake billionaire who is so out of it he falls asleep and drools at meetings).
Republicans could stop aggressively restricting the right to vote and gerrymandering districts to empower the far right.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell could condemn Trump’s actions... or at least pretend to be aware of them.
Republicans could demand that Trump and members of his administration release control of his assets to eliminate conflicts of interest.
Republicans could protect the oversight ability of the Congressional Budget Office, Joint Taxation Committee, and other non-partisan institutions rather than undermining them.
Republicans could stop lying about the science of climate change.
Republicans could make a deal to protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
Republicans could limit Trump’s unconstitutional travel ban.
Republicans could make appropriations to fully fund the State Department.
Republicans could assure the international community they will abide by the Iran Deal.
Republicans could join the international community in affirming the Paris Climate Accord.
HERE’S THE THING: REPUBLICANS LOVE TRUMP
Every day, each member of the Republican Party wakes up and contemplates what parts of the Constitution and which political norms they can undermine in order to empower Donald Trump. The Republican Party will not pursue any of the above actions, because the Republican Party imagined Trumpism, planted the seeds for it, actively tendered it, and continues to embrace it. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said after the presidential election: “We’re with Trump.”
Nearly all of Trump’s most egregious actions have some precedent in the GOP. This is a party, after all, in which the longest-serving speaker, Dennis Hastert, made corrupt land deals to gin up hush money for the men he raped when they were children. The GOP’s commitment to ideological purity led President George W. Bush to oppose the Kyoto Protocol, a precursor to the Paris Agreement that Trump abandoned in 2017. Long before Trump, Republicans who thought Atlas Shrugged was a religious text actively destroyed their own state economies to brutalize the poor people by refusing the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act, a decision that thousands die because of each year.
Every day, each member of the Republican Party wakes up and contemplates what parts of the Constitution and which political norms they can undermine in order to empower Donald Trump.
And though many Republicans act as though Trump is the first racist in their party, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House Majority Whip, once called himself “David Duke without the baggage” and Rep. Steve King of Iowa cribs his rhetoric white-supremacist ideology (and he was recently awarded a chairmanship). Trump is not an aberration in kind but in performance. He has stripped away the thin veneer of respectability that used to cover heartless Republican policy.
Up and down the ballot, Republicans have determined that the most effective way to implement their agenda is to embrace white-supremacist rhetoric. Nearly every signatory of the National Review’s Never Trump issue in February 2016 has ended up embracing Trump. Republicans may claim to be wary of primary challengers, but I predict that no sitting Republican senator will lose a contested primary to another Republican in the 2018 midterms. I also predict that Republicans will lose the House in 2018 and then Democrats will use the oversight power to aggressively pursue Trump.
Given that they would lose little electorally, there’s no reason that Republicans shouldn’t check Trump’s power. Except for one: they really, really, really love everything about his presidency. Trump is the GOP’s policy wet dream. He’s installed cronies from every industry to gut the government departments they are supposed to oversee. He’s aggressively worked to fund the military while overseeing an enormous decline in the county’s ability to conduct diplomacy, almost certainly precipitating a war from which the GOP’s donor class can heftily profit. Trump has stuffed the judiciary full of warm bodies that will implement the GOP agenda from the bench for decades after he’s gone. To the extent that Trump has been a failure for the GOP, it’s only to the extent that they can’t manage to get any actual legislation on his desk.
There’s lots of evidence that when Republicans actually want to take on their most radical right flank, they can do so. Republicans successfully prevented former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke from winning a Senate seat in 1990. The pro-business Chamber of Commerce has occasionally mobilized in favor of Medicaid expansion. In 2016, moderate Republicans in Kansas frustrated by devastating tax cuts ousted more than a dozen of the governor’s closest allies. In Alaska, Republicans joined Republicans could defeat their most radical extremists, but chose not to.
LET’S DO A THOUGHT EXERCISE
It’s worth imagining a brief counterfactual. Visualize a world in which Republicans do what conservatives in France did when faced with the specter of a far-right politician Marine Le Pen ascending to the presidency in 2017: endorse the center-left candidate, and live to fight another day. Had Republican elites deemed Trump too much to take, they could have urged supporters to vote for Clinton. Reluctant Trump voters would have stayed home or voted for Clinton. Clinton would have narrowly won and Republicans would be living in a world in which Merrick Garland might have a seat on the Supreme Court bench, but most other parts of Clinton’s agenda would have stalled.
In this world, media figures from Chris Cillizza to Chris Matthews would praise the GOP endlessly for putting country ahead of party and critique Clinton for being too partisan. Her approval would quickly fall due to the intense scrutiny from both the media and government investigations, leading the GOP to amass large lead in the generic ballot, which asks voters whether they would prefer voting for a Democrat over a Republican, with no candidate specified. The GOP would pick up at least five Senate seats, making deeper gains in the gerrymandered House, holding purple state governorships for three or possibly four consecutive terms.
Each week would bring a new rousing special-election success. Ed Gillespie would have eked out a win for governor of Virginia, returning the state to its historical counter-cyclical tradition. In 2020, the chastened Republican Party would have even (or better) odds of winning the White House. They would have unbridled control the redistricting process, ushering in ten more years of unalloyed state-level Republican power.
But the Republican Party didn’t do any of this. Despite the potential of optimistic alternatives, they are truly, deeply, madly, and irrationally in love with their moral, spiritual, ideological, and intellectual lodestar: Donald Trump.