President Donald Trump’s response to the mayhem in Charlottesville, Va., led to renewed calls for Republicans to abandon him. Even beforehand, reporters had written about a possible challenge to his renomination in 2020. Vice President Mike Pence felt obliged to disclaim any interest in being a challenger himself.
Interest in this question is a sign of Trump’s political weakness. Nobody would be talking about the 2020 primaries if Trump’s poll numbers were stronger, or if he had signed major legislation on health care or tax reform. But his Republican opponents face four hurdles before they can mount a serious campaign against him — and they do not seem to be paying any attention to the biggest one.
Three of those hurdles are familiar from coverage of the Trump administration’s first seven months. First, Trump retains the support of most Republican voters: Roughly 80 percent of self-identified Republicans approve of his job performance. Second, it’s not clear who would be able and willing to lead a Republican campaign against him. Third, we are in an era of strong negative partisanship. Even Republican voters who have serious reservations about Trump will be loath to do anything that might help the Democrats win the next presidential election.
If the administration continues on its current trajectory, the Republican opposition could overcome those obstacles. During his first seven months in office, some of his strong supporters have become weak supporters and some of his weak supporters have quit on him. More Republican voters could leave him if he makes no further legislative progress, or if they grow weary of defending him in future controversies, or if the economy weakens, or if special prosecutor Robert Mueller uncovers damaging information about him. If his numbers fall enough, some ambitious Republican politician will want to run against him. Republican voters might even eventually conclude that dumping the president is their surest way to keep the Democrats out of the White House — although that is going to be a very hard sell, since he won last November when a lot of people offered plausible reasons why he wouldn’t.
Even if anti-Trump Republicans grow in number, though, they will still face a fourth problem: They are internally divided. They are united in disliking Trump, but they are not united in all their reasons for disliking him, in what direction they would like to see the Republican party go in, and in what policies they want the country to adopt.
Start with immigration, an issue that played an important role in Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries. In July, Trump endorsed legislation to reduce legal immigration levels by half. Many of the Republicans who are most critical of Trump, including Senators Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham, criticized him over this issue too. But other conservatives who frequently oppose Trump, including the editors of this magazine, are for the bill.
Or take health care, the subject of the major legislative effort Congress has undertaken during Trump’s tenure. Both Arizona senators, Flake and John McCain, have been cool at best toward Trump. But the two of them split on health care: Flake voted for the Senate Republicans’ most recent bill, McCain against it. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who did not vote for Trump, was skeptical of the main Republican bills because they did not deregulate enough. Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who also did not vote for Trump, was opposed because they restrained federal spending on Medicaid.
These divisions among anti-Trump Republican reflect the diversity of the coalition the party represents. That coalition includes business-oriented moderates, tea-partying conservatives, and working-class nationalists. None of these groups would easily fit in the Democratic coalition, but they have very different outlooks. The first and second, but not the third, back free trade and (at least vaguely) entitlement reform. The second and third, but not the first, would like to curtail affirmative action. The first and third groups, but not the second, like the idea of a big federal push for infrastructure spending.
Trump won the primaries as the champion of the working-class nationalists, a group that had grown as a proportion of the Republican voting base but that had not been well represented in the party’s leadership. He also won it because the other two groups were split. Moderates who disliked Trump weren’t going to vote for Ted Cruz to stop him, and conservatives weren’t going to vote for Kasich.
These splits have survived the campaign. When Mitt Romney registers his disagreement with the president’s plan to withdraw from the Paris climate-change accord, most members of the business-moderate faction nod along. The other two groups prefer Trump’s approach. Trump supporters in those groups look at Romney’s declaration and are reinforced in their support of the president and in their irritation with anti-Trump Republicans.
Many of Trump’s Republican critics say that his character repels them much more than his policies. That his character is deficient a point on which the critics almost entirely agree. Whether or not they like the idea of cutting immigration, they dislike having a president who is mercurial, petty, dishonest, complacently ignorant. Their consensus on this admittedly important question obscures their disagreement on much else.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that so many of these anti-Trump Republicans are admirers of Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Thoughtful, well read, self-deprecating, Sasse is as far from Trump in personality as it is possible to be. His criticisms of Trump have centered on the president’s offenses against decency and lack of familiarity with constitutionalism. What he is known for, besides those criticisms, is giving voice to a conservative philosophy that emphasizes virtue, civil society, and their relationship to each other.
What Sasse has not yet done is take a stand on the issues that divide anti-Trump conservatives. Advocates of the immigration-control bill don’t yet know whether to count him as an ally or an opponent. If he comes out for reducing immigration, he will disappoint a lot of Trump critics; so too if he comes out against it. Sasse kept his head down for most of this year’s Obamacare debate, rising only to demand a vote on a bill that would have deferred most questions about health policy for a year or two.
If Sasse were to run for president, though, such choices would become inescapable. He could well find himself appealing only to Cruz Republicans or only to Kasich Republicans — and in either case he would probably fail.
Or perhaps he would find a way to unite the different elements of the party behind an agenda that the public would find appealing and that would actually do some good for the country. It’s a challenge that has so far eluded President Trump. But it has also eluded congressional Republicans, and the Republican candidates whom Trump defeated. The Republican party has enormous power but does not know what it wants to do with it. Republicans who detest the president should not kid themselves that this predicament is all his fault.