Whatever else it represented, the president’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin this week illustrated the firm control Trump has over his party. Yes, there was widespread dismay among conservative elites and some elected officials over his submissive posture toward Putin and his borderline anti-American attitude toward overwhelming evidence of Russian meddling with the 2016 election.
But as a New York Times breakdown of GOP reactions to the event illustrated, despite the widely quoted negative statements from lame-duck pols and a smattering of others, the prevailing sentiment among Republican elected officials was to give it all a wide berth and certainly avoid direct criticism of the president. Turns out these politicians knew their party’s “base” quite well, as we see from two credible polls showing that large majorities of self-identified Republicans think Trump did just fine in Helsinki. If the rank-and-file of the party that literally idolized Ronald Reagan and turned the Cold War into a metaphysical crusade can with equanimity watch vivid images of a U.S. president treating a Russian dictator as a sort of mentor and role model, then Trump should have no fear of the Republican revolt that has so often been falsely predicted.
Indeed, we seem to be witnessing the umpteenth recurrence of a pattern wherein Trump does or says something that horrifies GOP elites — without any real impact on his intraparty support. That pattern was first established three years ago when presidential candidate Trump supposedly touched a third rail by mocking John McCain’s ordeal as a POW. It reached a remarkable juncture in October of 2016 when dozens of leading GOP elected officials abandoned their presidential candidate as dead in the water after the Access Hollywood revelations of nasty misogyny — just before he led his party to victory. As president, Trump has steadily and visibly degraded the dignity of his office, embraced white nationalism while promoting crude racial stereotypes, expressed contempt for all sorts of civic and political norms, and defied ancient conservative tenets on trade policy, immigration, and America’s role in the world. Elite conservative grumbling about him has never ceased, even for a moment. But it’s become more muted and isolated over time. And with the evidence that this latest provocation has done nothing to dislodge the faith of the GOP “base,” we can conclude that he has nothing to fear from his party for the foreseeable future.
The estimable Ron Brownstein looks at the scattered remains of anti-Trump sentiment in the GOP and strains to see the beginnings of something resembling the Democratic Leadership Council’s highly influential revolt within the Donkey Party in the 1980s and 1990s. But as he acknowledges, the DLC (where I worked for over a decade) began as an elected-official organization in a party that looked doomed in presidential elections (it was founded after the 49-state Reagan landslide of 1984), not as a revolt against a sitting president. Perhaps Brownstein’s other Democratic analogue, the 1970s-era Committee for the Present Danger, is more appropriate, since it was as obscure and elite-dominated as today’s GOP dissidents. But CPD signally failed to reverse the drift of the Democratic Party away from Cold War militancy, and mainly served as a way station for Democrats who would soon defect.
A final bit of hope for a GOP revolt against Trump rests on the premise of a really poor midterm performance that leads panicked Republicans to push him toward retirement, perhaps through a powerful primary opponent. The recent precedents for that proposition are not encouraging, though. The last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, had disastrous midterm elections two years after they entered the White House — worse than anything likely to happen to the GOP in November. In 1994, Democrats lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats, along with control of both Houses of Congress (including the first GOP-controlled House in 40 years). In 2010, Democrats lost an incredible 64 House seats and six Senate seats, losing the commanding position in Congress that made passage of the Affordable Care Act possible. In both cases there was probably more intraparty grumbling than Trump is experiencing today (and lots of talk about primary challenges). Yet both Clinton and Obama were duly reelected without any primary challenge from within their own party.
Trump’s job-approval rating among self-identified Republicans is, according to Gallup, at 90 percent, a point higher than it was during his postinaugural “honeymoon” period. At some point political observers need to change their attitude from expecting the long-awaited GOP revolt against the 45th president to emerge any minute, after the next “outrage,” and instead conclude it ain’t happening until some concrete evidence arrives. Again and again and again Trump is touching third rails in American politics, and surviving, because his party is sticking with him. There’s no reason to think that pattern is about to change.