My second week in Washington played out against the dizzying backdrop of revelations that moved the Trump/Russia probe directly into the White House inner circle with allegations of espionage emerging from the lips of the talkers who populate cable news programming. Mounting evidence that the president is obstructing and undermining investigations into his relationship with Russia complement his bizarre embrace of Vladimir Putin at the expense of America’s European allies, elevating the president’s actions to the level of national security risk. Google “Trump” along with “clear and present danger” to get a sense of what some experts are saying about the immediate security threats posed by this administration. After my first week here, I wrote that events are moving quickly but the political reaction to them is moving slowly. That dynamic is more pronounced—and surreal—after everything that has transpired since.
Official Washington has not reacted to Trump’s Russian connections with anything close to the breathlessness that characterized coverage of Hillary’s email server, a scandal built around a security threat as hypothetical as this one is real. The reasons are political and speak to how low Republicans had to sink in order to ride Trump to power. Trump moved successfully to solidify support among his base in completing his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and although there has been slippage in recent days, it remains strong enough to frighten congressional Republicans who depend on his voters for their jobs. One might think that a national security threat to the country would be enough to move some Republicans to provide the constitutional check on the executive required of congress, but one would be wrong. Thus far, the choice between country and party has been a no-brainer.
I’ve heard several Washingtonians express the opinion that Republican unease with Trump—which from what I have observed is real and widespread—is being kept in check so that Republicans can implement their legislative agenda before the bottom falls out. Conventional wisdom has solidified around the notion that Republicans will be willing to turn on Trump once they gut Obamacare and get that massive tax cut. Then, the thinking goes, they will need Trump no more and will be free to cut him loose.
I’m skeptical, because I’ve heard this story before. Remember when principled conservatives were going to stand up to Trump at last summer’s convention? Or when they were going to recruit and back a serious third party challenger? Or when the grown-ups were going to protect us from Trump’s autocratic impulses? None of these happened because Trump hijacked the Republican base and is using it as a shield. Pushback from individual congressional Republicans can end careers. Pushback from allied groups of Republicans would irrevocably divide the party. So we get the implied consent of silence, as Republican officials hide from reporters like they are angry constituents at town halls.
Perhaps a moment of truth will arrive one day. It may come via a crisis brought on by the president’s actions, or when a more complete picture emerges of the original sin behind the cover-up. Perhaps Republicans will calculate that they will suffer permanent political damage by defending the increasingly indefensible. Certainly it would be easier to oppose Trump if his support softened among Republican voters. Maybe that will happen.
Or maybe it won’t. Perhaps at every crisis point, Republicans will calculate, as they have for the past year and a half, that there is no refund on tickets to the Trump train. For as long as Trump’s hardcore base sticks with him, a break with this president will have catastrophic consequences for the Republican coalition. But failure to make that break will have catastrophic consequences for the country. Because Trump holds the loyalty of voters primed by their party to embrace an angry voice of grievance while an angry and aggrieved president places his personal agenda above the national interest, the existential crisis facing the Republican Party is inexorably intertwined with the existential crisis facing the republic, and only one of them will be recognizable when this is over.