Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Julian Zelizer: Some Republicans are publicly criticizing President Trump
But it would be hard for them to really dissociate themselves from him
More and more Republicans are becoming openly critical of President Trump. The GOP congressional delegations who control the House and Senate headed home last week without any major legislation to show for their first six months of united government and Trump himself went on vacation.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen Sen. John McCain defy the President by sinking the effort to repeal Obamacare. Sen. Lindsey Graham warned Trump to back off his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions or it would be the beginning of the end of his presidency. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake published a new book lambasting Republicans for remaining silent as they watch the dysfunction of this administration play out in real time. People are already speculating about potential primary challengers to Trump, should he run for reelection in 2020.
And a growing number of conservative pundits feel comfortable expressing doubts about President Trump, even in the conservative holy land of Fox News.
But this is not an easy stance for Republicans. In fact, they own President Trump. They can try to disassociate themselves from him, but they and their party are as culpable as anyone for creating a path in American politics that allowed him to win election and to govern in the way that he does. He is in fact a Republican, given what the party has become, and is not some maverick who has stolen away the party. It wasn’t that he outwitted the Republican establishment, it’s that the Republican establishment has changed.
To understand the roots of President Trump, it is vital to remember that the Republican Party thus far has generally stood behind him and his agenda. Evangelical voters entered into a Faustian bargain with their support for a candidate who personally seems to be the antithesis of everything that their movement supports.
Despite all his controversial positions and statements, Trump performed very well in most red states during the election and polls show that he continues to hold pretty strong support in the Republican electorate. A Quinnipiac poll shows that 76% of Republicans approve of the President. Those numbers have dropped but they are not nearly as low as one might expect given what we are seeing in national polls where Donald Trump is unpopular, untrusted, and essentially unacceptable to Democrats and many independents as President of the United States.
Many Republican legislators have been reluctant to tackle the Russia problem, while only a handful of Republicans actually voted “no” on the health care bill despite all the fireworks about the revolt of the moderate three in the Senate. A surprising number of House Republicans outside the Freedom Caucus voted in support of an extraordinarily conservative bill. As Jennifer Senior wrote in her New York Times review of Sen. Flake’s new book: “But Flake has also cast most of his votes in favor of Trump’s policies.”
Almost no Republicans have objected to the extreme measures that President Trump has been pursuing through executive action, such as rolling back regulations to curb climate change or ramping up border security.
There was little pushback when the President responded to his week of crisis by supporting legislation to severely cut down on immigration and “joked” about wanting more police brutality, all of which were meant to be part of what amounted to “Don’t Worry, I’m a Conservative Republican Week.” The President has made clear his intention of trying to cut the corporate tax rate to 15%, manna from heaven for keepers of Ronald Reagan’s supply-side legacy.
From Newt Gingrich’s election as House Speaker in the wake of the 1994 midterms through the emergence of the tea party, the Republicans have steadily shifted to the right on public policy and adopted an aggressive, do-what-it-takes style to governance that laid the groundwork for the Trump presidency.
On immigration, voting rights, tax policy, climate change and more, the GOP traveled farther from the median voter and President Trump has stood right by their side. The health care reform the President supported came directly out of the Freedom Caucus agenda – and failed when more Americans learned from Congressional Budget Office analyses how draconian the cuts in their health care coverage would be.
President Trump’s vulgar language and zealous rejection of fact-based analysis of the issues (such as voter fraud or climate change, for example) comes directly out of the conservative media universe that have been peddling this style of political discourse for some time now. We know that Trump likes Alex Jones and Fox & Friends, while his senior advisor Stephen Bannon helped to make Breitbart.com what it is today.
Conservative pundits have been challenging mainstream expertise on issues such as climate change for a long time. On the airwaves, it is common to see hosts and reporters vilify Democrats, and Republicans who are too centrist, with discussions of conspiratorial accusations such as birtherism that receive treatment as though they are mainstream news. Older listeners who remember Bob Grant’s fierce talk radio shows will recognize some of the lineage of Trump’s most pointed statements.
While some Republicans certainly distance themselves from these elements of the media, in reality much of the party has relied on this aspect of their world as a foundation for party power. Figures such as Rush Limbaugh have been deeply embedded among top Republicans for decades.
And the alliances that President Trump has made with extremist elements in the electorate are nothing new. The so-called “base” of President Trump’s support was already becoming a bigger part of the Republican Party back in 2008 when Senator McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to join him as his running mate.
In a revealing film, Right America: Feeling Wronged, the documentarian Alexandra Pelosi (Nancy Pelosi’s daughter) captured the mood at McCain-Palin rallies in 2008 which was almost exactly like what we saw at Trump-Pence rallies during the 2016 campaign.
The movie shows voters at campaign rallies, holding up signs that read “Country First,” railing against a media that they believed was stacked for the Democrats and forecasting how an Obama presidency would lead to the end of civilization. The historian Rick Perlstein has shown how important this underside of Republican politics has been since the 1960s.
If Republicans really become dissatisfied with President Trump and what he stands for, they will have to take a deep dive into their own history and reckon with it. Otherwise, any effort to cleanse the party of President Trump’s impact won’t really work. Republicans will find themselves in the same place come 2020.