Earlier this week, former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about how Republicans should approach an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. He claimed they had two choices — one hard, one easy — if they wished to “save [their] souls” from being permanently entangled with a man who, in Flake’s estimation, has done lasting damage to America’s standing globally and its political culture domestically. “With what we now know, the president’s actions warrant impeachment,” Flake wrote, outlining what he deemed the more “difficult” of the two decisions: whether or not to impeach him. “[But] I fear that, given the profound division in the country, an impeachment proceeding at such a toxic moment might actually benefit a president who thrives on chaos … So although impeachment now seems inevitable, I fear it all the same.”
The second decision, though, is easier, according to Flake: “Senate Republicans will have to decide whether, given what we now know about the president’s actions and behavior, to support his reelection. Obviously, the answer is no.” It’s not so obvious. Flake’s rallying cry echoes his long-held misgivings about the president, whom he criticized during the 2016 campaign, in a lauded speech on the Senate floor, and in a book he wrote titled Conscience of a Conservative. But despite his vocal opposition, Flake has showed few qualms about Trump’s actual policy agenda, which he supported at an 81 percent clip while he was in office. (Senators Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins have all opposed Trump more frequently.)
This dynamic illustrates a trend: One of the major barriers to extracting conservatism from Trump’s clutches is that the conservative political project has done fairly well by him, and few Republican officials or their supporters have shown a sustained interest in changing that. The latest evidence is Trump’s success at fundraising for reelection: On Tuesday, it was reported that his 2020 campaign and the Republican National Committee had raised a combined $125 million in the third quarter of this year — more than any other presidential campaign in U.S. history. By comparison, President Obama raised just over $70 million in the third quarter of 2011, according to AP. A detailed breakdown of where the money is coming from won’t be available until later this month, when the campaigns file their quarterly reports with the Federal Election Commission. But one thing is clear: Despite Trump’s coarse manner, unhinged social-media presence, and historic unpopularity in public opinion polls, he’s now galvanized a historic fundraising haul for the GOP to accompany his significant corporate tax cut, his record pace of confirming conservative judges, and his reshaping of the Supreme Court by adding two conservative hardliners, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
It remains to be seen what the souls of Republican legislators are worth in light of a president whose substantial war chest will be used to hammer their Democratic opponents and make all of their reelection campaigns easier. My guess, as of Tuesday, is somewhere in the neighborhood of $125 million, possibly contingent on Trump’s ongoing fundraising success and how badly the impeachment inquiry plays out for him. But perhaps the bigger issue is that Jeff Flake’s talk of souls belies the fact that Republicans have been transparent about what they want from an American political system for decades, and what they’re willing to do — and tolerate — to achieve it. Their pursuit of radical deregulation, corporate handouts, and the gutting of social welfare has long been enabled by a sky-high tolerance for undemocratic practices — from opposition to civil rights since the 1960s, to the erosion of voting rights since the 2000s, to the solicitation of foreign interference in American elections today.
This embrace is a primary driver of the GOP’s continued electoral relevance, which would’ve faded significantly at several points had they not been so adept at rallying aggrieved white voters. Trump may be a more boorish manifestation of this pact than many Republicans have grown accustomed to. But considering they’ve habitually made peace with much the same forces in the past, the notion that he’d be a dealbreaker becomes less convincing by the day. If nothing else, it’s at odds with popular will within their party’s rank and file. Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans have consistently topped 80 percent. His campaign manager claims that 50,000 new donors committed money in the two days after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry in September. You can count on one hand the Republican officials who’ve expressed support for it.
But perhaps most telling is how Trump’s Ukraine call has come to be framed as the moment of truth. His virulent racism, persistent lies, flaunting of the judiciary, and refusal to divest from his private businesses has elicited no less than a staunch and concerted defense from his party compatriots. As Flake wrote, “[Truly] devastating has been our tolerance of that conduct. Our embrace of it.” He’s not wrong, but he makes a poor case for why years of enabling it can be redeemed by not voting for him again. The damage is done, the consequences unerasable. And the foundation that enabled Trump’s rise — the GOP’s anti-democratic impulse, its bigotry, its entertainment of outlandish and often racist conspiracy theories — will remain intact either way. By truly dismantling it, Republicans risk almost certain electoral ruin for the foreseeable future. But anything less is just cosmetic.