Donald Trump is probably the weakest he’s been since becoming president.
He all but confessed to trying to tilt the next election in his favor with pleas — public and private — to China and Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president, and Biden’s son. A majority of Americans support the Democratic impeachment inquiry; a plurality wants him impeached already. His defense is anything but, as allies like Rudy Giuliani keep undermining his position with their own misconduct. His approval rating is on the wane, and he trails his Democratic opponents in key swing states like Wisconsin.
And yet most congressional Republicans refuse to break with the president. Despite his obvious wrongdoing and complete unfitness for the job, the vast majority of Republican office holders in Washington are “ride or die” supporters of Trump.
The most common explanation for this stalwart commitment is simply fear. “Across the country,” reports The Washington Post, “most GOP lawmakers have responded to questions about Trump’s conduct with varying degrees of silence, shrugged shoulders or pained defenses. For now, their collective strategy is simply to survive and not make any sudden moves.” Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake made a version of this point last month, when he said that most Senate Republicans — “at least 35” — would vote to remove Trump if it were on a secret ballot.
The reason for the fear, in this telling, is the Republican base and its total commitment to the president. This overwhelming support is a threat to almost any lawmaker who breaks ranks. Challenge Trump and you may end up in a primary against a more MAGA-compliant opponent.
I think there’s another explanation — one that accounts for Republican behavior without casting these lawmakers as would-be dissidents.
On most issues, congressional Republicans don’t actually disagree with or disapprove of the president. They might find him coarse and occasionally abhorrent — when he was still the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan took a shot at Trump after his “both sides” remarks regarding the white supremacist march and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — but that doesn’t mean they have a problem with his administration.
And why would they? Despite his somewhat heterodox campaign, Trump has been a remarkably conservative president. For most Republican lawmakers, to oppose Trump would be to oppose their own interests.
Most Republican lawmakers were sent to Washington to fight for spending cuts, lower taxes and conservative judges. Why would any of them stand against a president who has delivered on each count? Trump has taken an ax to domestic spending programs for the poor — his Agriculture Department just proposed new cuts to food stamps; he signed a tax cut that funnels trillions to the highest earners; and he stacked the federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a conservative politician.
When Trump occasionally deviates from conservative orthodoxy — or otherwise bucks the party’s consensus — Republican lawmakers try to push him back in line. Earlier this year, Senate Republicans didn’t hesitate to challenge the administration on its plan to impose a 5% tariff on all goods imported from Mexico.
“I will yield to nobody in passion and seriousness and commitment for securing the border,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said to reporters at the time. “But there’s no reason for Texas farmers and ranchers and manufacturers and small businesses to pay the price of massive new taxes.”
Likewise, Senate Republicans took a collective stand against Trump after the White House announced his plan this week to withdraw American forces from northern Syria, clearing the path for Turkish military operations against Kurds in the region. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, warned Trump against a “precipitous withdrawal”; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the move “a big win for Iran and Assad, a big win for ISIS”; Ben Sasse of Nebraska said the president “needs to know that this bad decision will likely result in the slaughter of allies who fought with us, including women and children.”
It’s true that the Republican base isn’t invested in U.S. foreign policy toward Syria. It’s also true, however, that Trump may well lash out against his Republican critics, which could turn his voters against them on this particular issue. But Senate Republicans spoke right up. This time around, the fear that’s supposed to drive their acquiescence to Trump doesn’t exist.
If Republicans are willing to challenge Trump on his foreign policy, including the disposition of U.S. troops abroad, then the difference when it comes to Ukraine — as well as other scandals, like the president’s continued corruption and self-dealing — may just be that they don’t see a problem. You can read Sen. Marco Rubio’s willingness to downplay Trump’s open call to intervene in the 2020 election as a craven surrender, or you can take it at face value: Maybe Rubio just doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal.
None of this would be out of character for congressional Republicans. These are the lawmakers who refused to fix the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court killed a key provision of the law in 2013. They said nothing when Trump tried to launch a crusade against imaginary “voter fraud.” They are at best indifferent to the restrictive laws and voter purges that keep millions of Americans from the polls.
Sometimes, the simplest answer is the correct one. Why are most Republicans silent in the face of the president’s attempt to cheat his way to reelection? Perhaps it’s because they don’t think it’s wrong — or because they don’t care if it is.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.