Pretend for a moment you’re a Republican member of congress representing a district drawn to maximize the influence of base Republican voters. You don’t worry much about losing to a Democrat in the next general election, because your district was carefully gerrymandered to protect you from a general election challenge. But that same gerrymander boosted the influence of Republican primary voters on your re-nomination, so ever since the district lines were drawn after the 2010 census you have been looking over your right shoulder at potential primary challengers who could attack you for being too moderate.
You’re a reasonable sort. Privately, you think the new president is a few blue moons shy of a full box of Lucky Charms. You cringe at his tweets and recoil in horror whenever he has a conversation with a head of state. But despite your personal feelings, you can’t avoid this: almost nine in ten Republicans approve Trump’s performance, even though he’s deeply under water with the rest of the country. Your base loves the way he’s taking on Washington. So what if he’s breaking the furniture—he’s doing what he said he would do (or at least it appears that way). To cross Trump would invariably unleash his wrath, and the wrath of the voters next year. So you keep quiet during the opening act of the most problematic administration in American history.
Sound familiar? It should, because we have been talking about this exact problem for over a year. It’s the reason why #NeverTrump efforts never amounted to anything, why Republicans were unable to deny Trump their nomination or mount a credible general election challenge to him, and why it’s fanciful to imagine an impeachment trial or a 25th Amendment solution to the chaos at the top as long as the political cost of opposing Trump exceeds the cost of defending him. Base voters were the biggest prize in Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Divorce him and you divorce them too.
During the campaign, the mantra of the opposition was: you can always stop him later—on Super Tuesday or before the convention or at the convention or through an independent conservative general election challenge. It never happened. It’s still not happening because no Republican with a political future wants to face up to the reality that an intramural split with Trump will mean the end of the party as we have known it since the days of Ronald Reagan, an outward acknowledgement of the long-term incompatibility between Republican conservatives and reactionaries. Republicans who stand up to Trump will pay a steep political price, and you may have noticed that profiles in courage have been in short supply.
At least for now.
That’s because our Republican representative is also aware that the rest of the nation is angry and scared, and they are making their displeasure known through what is shaping up to be the most widespread organic civil resistance in modern American history. They are flooding his office with phone calls, burdening his staff with email, demanding he hold town meetings to listen to them. He’s doing his best to avoid them for now, but he knows that can’t continue indefinitely. And he wonders how long he can keep covering for Donald Trump before his defense of a deeply unpopular incumbent becomes a general election liability, even in his normally safe district.
You could make the case that the best interests of the nation and the globe demand that Republicans stop enabling the new administration despite the political cost it would exact. You would not be wrong to suggest that a moment like ours calls for country to be placed ahead of party. But Republicans have worked for years to win the trifecta of the White House, House and Senate, and they have achieved it by putting party above all else. They have little appetite, at least at this point, to undo their work.
Only when the cost of defending Donald Trump outweighs the cost of challenging him will you see Republican supporters begin to peel away. This could happen for any number of reasons—irrefutable evidence of Trump’s involvement with Russian tampering in the election, a dangerous foreign policy misstep, an unavoidable personal scandal reminiscent of the Access Hollywood tape, a direct challenge to the authority of congress, or a decline in support by Republican voters if their lives do not improve under the new administration, just to name a few. These are likely to take time to develop, but reality has a funny way of creeping up on us. For now, Republicans are doing whatever they can to avoid choosing between two bad outcomes, hoping things improve at the White House or the public outcry diminishes. But the situation is extremely volatile and the pressure they are feeling is real.