Devin Nunes didn’t come here to make friends. The ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee — and the lead heel in the special television event we call impeachment — did not use his opening remarks Wednesday to win hearts and minds in purple America. Instead, Nunes preached directly to the amygdalae of the conservative choir. The congressman did not engage the substance of the Democrats’ case, concede that an unenlightened observer might mistakenly find it compelling, and then carefully refute its premises. Rather, he focused his fire squarely on the inquiry’s legitimacy, dressing up petty complaints over procedural minutiae in metaphorical invocations of “coups” and the occult. The Democrats’ decision to begin their inquiry with private committee hearings — as precedent dictated — was, in Nunes’s telling, “a closed-door audition process in a cultlike atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol.”
“Anyone familiar with the Democrats scorched-earth war against President Trump,” Nunes declared, “would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”
Of course, by definition, anyone familiar with this alleged “war” is already firmly ensconced in Donald Trump’s corner. “We all know the Democrats are lying traitors” may be sufficient to keep the Republican base loyal, to keep Trump-skeptical Republican lawmakers craven, and, thus, to keep Trump in office through the end of next year. But if the GOP’s goal is to stanch the “bluing” of the American suburbs or to foster broad bipartisan faith in Trump’s guiltlessness, Nunes’s histrionics seem less than optimal. Which invites the question: If conspiratorial ravings are the best ammunition the GOP’s got, is this really a war they want to fight? Or, put more plainly: Will Republicans come to regret abetting Trump’s naked corruption? Will the long-term costs of casting their lot with a con artist (who has burned nearly every partner he’s ever had) outweigh the immediate benefits of standing by a Republican president who retains the impassioned approval of the GOP faithful?
Politico co-founder John F. Harris says yes. In a column titled “What Impeachment Will Cost the GOP,” Harris suggests that conservatives will come to regret legitimizing Trump’s lawless expansions of executive power and that up-and-coming Republican lawmakers will find their reputations irreparably tainted by their association with Trump’s defense:
Many conservatives sincerely believe their rhetoric about the need for a strong presidency unshackled from excessive congressional and judicial impediments. People like Dick Cheney and John Yoo face an awkward question: Is this what you had in mind? Empowering a president to shake down foreign leaders to help his domestic politics or funnel business to his private resorts? The Trump precedent will echo for years in arguments about executive power, and not in ways conservatives will like …
[M]ost Republicans do not face a high cost within their own party for defending Trump. But, in a country becoming younger and more diverse, there’s little chance even these internal GOP politics remain static. The isolationists of the 1930s had the popular position at the time but had considerable explaining to do for years after. So did the McCarthy backers of the 1950s. So did the civil-rights opponents of the 1960s.
Republican senator Josh Hawley of Missouri is 39. Republican senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is 42. There is every reason to suppose they and other ascendant Republicans will be answering “What did you do in the Trump years?” for decades to come.
Harris is not alone in voicing these sorts of sentiments. Former U.N. ambassador — and presumed future Republican presidential candidate — Nikki Haley has inspired no small amount of backseat political consulting from Never Trump Republicans for rebranding herself as a hard-line Trump loyalist. During the 2016 primary, Haley repeatedly criticized Trump (albeit not by name), but in her new book, she criticizes other former administration officials for their disloyalty to the president. And in an interview with CBS News on Sunday, Haley insisted Trump’s conduct was unimpeachable in both senses of the word: “You’re gonna impeach a president for asking for a favor that didn’t happen and — and giving money, and it wasn’t withheld. I don’t know what you would impeach him on.”
In my view, the Haleys and Hawleys of the world have a clearer sense of their own best interests than their center-right skeptics do. On a bad day, Trump still boasts the approval of about three-quarters of Republican voters. The party’s core interest groups and media apparatus are still tied to him at the hip. If Trump loses in a landslide in 2020, he’ll surely forfeit some standing in the eyes of the GOP base. But any Republican who aided and abetted the enemy in the president’s moment of crisis will remain persona non grata in a GOP primary from here to eternity. And the same would apply with even more force were Republicans to help Democrats impeach Trump. Only a radical realignment of U.S. politics could change this reality. But in the unlikely event of such a political revolution, Republicans who have carried Trump’s water this far would be ill-positioned to inherit the reins anyway. Some fresh-faced, respectably reactionary figure with a résumé too short to be shadowed by the party’s past mistakes — a conservative analogue to Barack Obama or Mayor Pete — would be more likely to lead a Charlie Baker–ized version of the post-Trump GOP than a fire-breathing Catholic populist like Hawley or a Trump administration veteran like Haley.
Anyhow, the odds of a rapid, fundamental change in the character of the Republican Party are exceptionally slim. Trump’s acceleration of a preexisting trend toward urban-rural polarization could create some real problems for the GOP in the future (more on that in a minute), but it has also enhanced the pro-Republican bias of the Senate: The abundance of low-density, predominantly white U.S. states means that a party of rural white identity politics should control the upper chamber more often than not over the coming decade, no matter how minoritarian its worldview becomes. Meanwhile, the biases of state boundaries also ensure that Republicans will retain a modicum of state-level authority. This high floor of conservative power will blunt calls for ideological reform. Especially since, in a two-party system, even a generally unpopular Republican Party would remain one well-timed recession away from a plausible shot at full federal control.
Finally, it isn’t entirely clear just how threatening demographic change will ultimately be for Republicans. I’m of the view that conservatives are right to be afraid; for deep-seated cultural and material reasons, the rising generations will be hostile to the party of white, Christian fiscal conservatives. Then again, most liberals didn’t expect Trump to win a higher share of the nonwhite vote than Mitt Romney had. And recent polling suggests the president has gained support among nonwhite Americans over the course of his first term. As Hispanic Americans assimilate into whiteness and historical memory loosens its grip on the political imagination of younger African-Americans, both these constituencies may grow marginally more Republican.
All of which is to say: Ambitious Republican lawmakers may be wise to avoid playing Nunes’s part in the impeachment drama and thereby defining themselves as ruthless Trump apologists. But they’d also be fools to play the role of conscientious objector in “the Democrats’ scorched-earth war against president Trump.” “My party, right or wrong” will remain the Republican base’s ethos well into the future.
Harris’s other warning to Republicans, that Trump will set a precedent for executive power that will haunt principled conservatives, is even less compelling. The principle that enabled congressional Republicans to forcefully defend George W. Bush’s torture program and warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens — and then to decry Obama’s well-precedented decision to set priorities for deportation as absolutist tyranny — is that our Constitution’s checks and balances exist to protect GOP presidents (without binding them) and to bind Democratic presidents (without protecting them). Trump’s abuses of executive authority may be garishly petty, overt, and self-centered. But they are scarcely more egregious than his Republican predecessor’s. Allegations of hypocrisy will not stymie the GOP’s hysterical tantrums the next time a Democratic president stretches the boundaries of his or her office’s prerogatives.
The true check on the next progressive White House’s unilateral power, meanwhile, was never going to be norms or precedents but rather the federal judiciary. If Republicans can retain the White House and Senate next year, they will be able to entrench conservative control of the federal courts for a generation. As of this writing, most election forecasters give Trump a nearly even shot of winning reelection and consider Republicans strong favorites to control the upper chamber come 2021. By contrast, were Republicans to remove Trump from office against his will, igniting a civil war within their own ranks, the party would be all but certain to forfeit the presidency next November. If you are a conservative concerned above all with containing the Democratic Party’s capacity to make policy through executive action in the long run, standing by Trump so as to lock up the judiciary is the smart play.
All this said, the Republican Party as an institution may pay a considerable price for wedding itself to Trump and his lawlessness. America’s political geography, two-party system, and counter-majoritarian institutions may put a floor beneath conservative power. But if the GOP had chosen to nominate a less overtly racist and misogynistic standard-bearer in 2016, it might have been able to leverage its structural advantages into political dominance rather than mere parity. The available evidence suggests Trump’s personal unpopularity is a weight on his party, eroding much of the advantage it would have otherwise accrued from presiding over an improving economy. What’s more, if formerly pro-Romney suburbs keep seceding from red America, the long-term costs to Republicans will be profound. Urban-rural polarization is unambiguously good for the GOP in the Senate, but once the typical stretch of suburban sprawl becomes five points more Democratic than Republican, the electoral math flips on Republicans in both the House and many state legislatures. At present, even without gerrymandering, the concentration of Democratic voters in cities gives Republicans an advantage: While Democrats “waste” votes running up the score in urban districts, Republicans distribute their ballots relatively efficiently across space, enabling the party to routinely win a higher percentage of seats than statewide votes. But once the suburbs turn narrowly blue and Republicans rely on the near-unanimous support of rural areas to compete, they will be the party with a political geography problem.
Given all this, if the Republican Party could operate as an institution solely concerned with maximizing its own medium-term power, no matter the ideological consequences, it’s conceivable that impeaching Trump, throwing the 2020 election, and rebranding as a proudly center-right party would be its best move. But that isn’t how the GOP, or any political party, actually operates. For individual Republican lawmakers looking to increase their personal power — and for conservative true-believers who wish to safeguard their unpopular ideological victories against democratic rebuke — standing behind Trump is a no-brainer. No matter how “cultlike” your party’s atmosphere may look on TV.