Politics & Policy

Hey ‘Resisters,’ Is Trump an Existential Threat to America Or Not?

Sen. Bob Corker speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill, September 26, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Make up your mind.

On October 8, Senator Bob Corker, who recently announced that he would retire rather than seek reelection in 2018, grabbed headlines when he tweeted, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

A day later, the New York Times published an extensive interview in which the Tennessee Republican openly worried about President Trump’s handling of national security.

“Sometimes I feel like he’s on a reality show of some kind, you know, when he’s talking about these big foreign policy issues,” Corker told the Times. “And, you know, he doesn’t realize that, you know, that we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.”

Corker also claimed that most congressional Republicans agree with him. Though he declined to say why they’re not speaking up, the answer appears obvious: They fear attacks from pro-Trump media outlets, which would hurt them with their pro-Trump constituents.

Though Corker’s most pointed statements came after announcing his pending retirement, he has publicly criticized the president in the past. In May, he said the White House was in a “downward spiral” despite a “really good national security team.” And in August, after Trump defended some of those who participated in the deadly white-supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., he said, “The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”

As a frequent critic of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy, I was heartened by Corker’s outspoken criticism. Corker chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, putting him in a strong position to check the president in that crucial area as needed. If, for example, Rex Tillerson quit or were fired, Corker’s committee would have to approve the next secretary of state. He thus has the power to deter Trump from removing Tillerson — one of the “adults in the room” — despite embarrassing reports that the former ExxonMobil CEO privately called the president a “moron” earlier this year.

Many Democrats and self-styled members of “the Resistance” had a different take. They noted that Corker supported Trump’s candidacy and has voted “with the president” over 80 percent of the time. To which the only reasonable response is: Of course Corker votes with Republicans. He is a Republican. He wants to cut taxes, repeal Obamacare, appoint conservative judges, and support other Republican priorities. He didn’t adopt those positions because Donald Trump championed them.

During the general-election campaign, Corker praised the Republican nominee for “challenging the foreign-policy establishment that has been here for so long,” even though he’s part of that establishment. It’s not unreasonable to suspect Corker always had concerns about Trump’s approach to foreign policy, but suppressed them to help his party win the election.

Even so, it would be a mistake for liberal Trump opponents to reject Corker’s support now. If they truly believe that Trump’s presidency represents a serious threat to global stability and America’s international position, then they shouldn’t waste time on a single “I told you so” or “What took you so long?” They should embrace Corker and get back to work on winning other allies to their side.

In short, the liberal members of the “resistance” need to decide: Is Trump an existential threat to the United States or not? If he’s not — if he’s just another Republican president — then they need to tamp down the hysteria. But if he is — if American democracy and global security are truly at risk — then they need to separate normal policy disagreement from the ongoing crisis.

If he is — if American democracy and global security are truly at risk — then they need to separate normal policy disagreement from the ongoing crisis.

This doesn’t mean Democrats should abandon their policy priorities. But they shouldn’t let disagreement in those areas cause them to shun Republicans and conservatives who share some of their concerns about the Trump presidency.

This is all the more important because crucial Trump-related questions will come before Congress in the months ahead, and liberals will need some Republicans on their side if they are to succeed.

Two Democrats  —  Representative Ted Lieu and Senator Ed Markey  —  have introduced a bill forbidding the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war. Currently, there are no legal checks on the president’s power to use nuclear weapons — all he must do is issue the order. There’s a non-zero chance that Trump decides to order a nuclear attack on North Korea, leaving only two possible outcomes: hundreds of thousands, possibly millions dead or a military coup to stop it.

Passing Lieu-Markey would allow top military officials to refuse the order on legal grounds. But to become law, the bill might need a veto-proof supermajority, because Trump is unlikely to sign a bill limiting his own power otherwise. And to secure the bill a veto-proof supermajority, Democrats will need to reach out to their Republican colleagues, some of whom may be enthused by its restoration of certain war-making powers to Congress, which has ceded many of its constitutional responsibilities in that area to the executive branch in recent decades.

Finally, if there’s any chance of removing Trump from office before the end of his term — the Resistance’s primary goal — it will require Republican votes.

If Robert Mueller’s investigation makes the case that Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, or even fulfills the Resistance’s dream by discovering strong evidence of direct collusion with Russia, it is likely that many Republicans will still refuse to vote for impeachment. Trump will call the investigation’s conclusions fake news. Fox, Breitbart, Drudge, InfoWars, and other pro-Trump media will fight impeachment with everything they’ve got. Some Trump supporters will threaten violence and talk about civil war. The pressures currently keeping Republicans who privately criticize Trump from openly opposing him will increase immeasurably.

Even if Democrats capture the House in the 2018 midterms and impeach Trump with a simple majority, there’s no way they can win the 67 Senate seats necessary to remove him from office. Without any Republican Senators, the effort will fail.

Whether for checking Trump’s worst impulses or ultimately removing him from office, Democrats need Republicans. Many NeverTrump Republican commentators, politicians, and voters share some of the Resistance’s concerns about the president. If Corker is to be believed, many congressional Republicans do as well, but they feel immense pressure to back the president anyway.

Resisting those pressures won’t be easy, and it would behoove liberal Trump critics to do everything they can to make it easier. If they truly believe their own rhetoric — if they truly believe that the president is an existential threat to America — then they should get over their partisanship and put country first.

    READ MORE:

    Will Democrats Abandon the Resistance?

    The Two Resistances

    The Legal Pushback to President Trump

Nicholas Grossman is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois and an editor at large of Arc Digital.

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