Politics & Policy

The Frustration of the Anti-Trump Republicans

Sen. Bob Corker speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
They’re trapped between an obsequious GOP majority and a hysterical progressive cacophony.

Last week didn’t go well for anti-Trump Republicans. Representative Mark Sanford — outspoken critic of the president, committed fiscal conservative, and . . . part-time Appalachian Trail hiker? — lost a primary vote to his pro-Trump challenger, Katie Arrington. In the wake of her victory she captured the political moment in a sentence: “We are the party of Donald J. Trump.”

Earlier that day, Senator Bob Corker had taken to the Senate floor to argue for an amendment that would allow Congress to reassert its constitutional prerogative over trade issues — and to roll back the president’s ill-advised tariffs. His call fell on deaf ears. Corker’s measured lecture quickly became a spirited tirade against the congressional leadership’s deference to the president when another senator blocked his amendment:

I would bet that 95 percent of the people on this side of the aisle support intellectually this amendment. I would bet that. I would bet higher than 95 percent. And a lot of them would vote for it if it came to a vote, but “gosh, no, no, no, we might poke the bear!” is the language I’ve been hearing in the hallway.

There are two important things to understand about the frustration of these anti-Trump Republicans. First, as Sanford’s and Corker’s failures illustrate, President Trump embodies and shapes the new mainstream of the GOP, and his opponents within the party appear powerless to stop it. And second, however angry these Republican Trump critics become, they will never become allies to the “#Resistance” — despite liberal commentators’ hopes to the contrary.

Congressional acquiescence to the president’s priorities, even when lawmakers disagree with them, reflects the broader influence that he has exerted over the Republican party — hence Corker’s widely reported comment that the Trump movement is becoming “cultish.” Take the CPAC conference as an example: Whereas Trump won just 15 percent of the vote in the conference’s 2016 straw poll, 93 percent of attendees expressed approval of his job performance in 2018. And today, political-party attitudes towards Russia are flipped, with Republicans more likely than Democrats to have a favorable opinion of the country.

Republicans offering anything but unequivocal loyalty to the president have learned to expect a stinging rebuke at the ballot box; just ask Sanford. Rather than submit themselves to a shellacking against pro-Trump primary opponents, Corker and Senator Jeff Flake opted for retirement. As lame ducks they’re speaking out in defense of the time-old principles that the GOP used to defend, even when this puts them in conflict with party leaders too often willing to serve as a proxy for the White House.

But this doesn’t make them part of the #Resistance.

Flake’s and Corker’s last hurrahs have garnered notable media coverage at times, such as when the former compared the president’s antagonism towards journalists to Stalin’s and when the latter likened the White House to “an adult daycare center.” However, comments such as these typically have a brief run in the press before the next obsession of our goldfish-attention-span news cycle crowds them out. Moreover, these renegade Republicans have a limited impact on policy outcomes: Not only are their anti-Trump efforts (such as Corker’s trade amendment) overwhelmingly unsuccessful, but they hardly vote in lockstep against the president themselves.

Commentators from the #Resistance are furious. Evidently they believe they can claim ownership of conservatives who articulate even a slightly Trump-ambivalent position. Online, here’s how this usually goes down: Rogue Republican speaks out against an ill-advised initiative of the president’s. Twitter user shares message to the effect of “If you’re serious about X issue, prove it. Caucus with the Democrats and remove the Republicans from the Senate majority.”

What these progressives miss is that Republicans who speak out against the president don’t do so in spite of their conservative credentials; they act to maintain the consistency of their beliefs. Jeff Flake, for instance, received a score of 100 percent on the Club for Growth’s annual report card in 2017. Corker boasted a 100 percent pro-life rating on his campaign website before he declined to seek reelection last fall. Renegade members of the GOP caucus speak out on different issues at different junctures, but their efforts are not necessarily a revolutionary stand against the president, just an attempt to conserve what they know to be right — and Right.

While the conservative mavericks find Trump’s rhetoric distasteful and his policy preferences often objectionable, they also — unlike the #Resistance — see areas where they can cooperate with the administration. As FiveThirtyEight’s “Tracking Congress in the Age of Trump” scores indicate, most Republican senators, including the rebels, usually vote with the White House. In fact, the only member of the caucus with a score lower than 80 percent is Rand Paul. Indeed, Trump’s antagonists on the Republican side of the aisle aren’t just willing to vote with him; they also go to bat for him when they deem it appropriate. Even those who believe that this president has trafficked in moral vandalism and debased our country share an interest in advancing conservative policies.

They’re not the anti-Trump panacea that the Democrats want, nor are they part of the malleable mass that the Senate leadership would like them to join.

In other words, the conservatives to whom left-wing commentators are appealing remain committed to limited government, free markets, and national defense. This talk of recruiting Corker and Flake — or even Susan Collins and John McCain — to the Democratic caucus is the ultimate non-starter. What self-respecting Republican would join the crowd clamoring for single-payer?

Progressive figures allege that the anti-Trump Republican members of Congress are “posturing against Trump while doing little to actually stop him.” Yet there is a certain double standard inherent in arguing that the president’s words inflict tangible damage on our politics, while the speeches and statements of Republican senators “don’t count as ‘doing.’” Which is it? One can argue that words matter or that they don’t. Progressive critics of the president are trying to have it both ways.

Moreover, their premise is that the president’s acts constitute an irredeemable, immediate, and irrepressible death knell to our form of government. And if you listen to the words of his Republican critics, it might appear that they somewhat agree: They speak of assaults on the truth, executive incompetence, lasting damage to our institutions and standing in the world. Yet that’s not to say there are some areas where it remains possible for these GOP lawmakers to work with the president, especially when it comes to approving key political appointments, or that they agree that the president’s corrosive behavior is an immediate threat to American constitutionalism.

They don’t want to bring government to a halt, just to steer it in the right direction; they eschew alarmism and all-or-nothingism for the diligent, deliberate work of standing up for Congress’s check on the executive when necessary. And while congressional Republicans have rubberstamped the vast majority of the president’s proposals, they’ve drawn a line at crucial instances.

Within this small space between an obsequious Republican majority and a hysterical progressive cacophony, these Republicans will continue their work, unappreciated and largely unheard. They’re not the anti-Trump panacea that the Democrats want, nor are they part of the malleable mass that the Senate leadership would like them to join, but the influence they exert to keep the conservative agenda on track will be missed once they leave Congress.

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