Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Breaking news: Republicans might finally be willing to break with President Donald Trump. Following the president’s performance with Covid-19 as well as his response to the Black Lives Matters protests there have been a number of stories speculating about whether the GOP will finally come undone.
The drama is greatly exaggerated. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters that she is “struggling” to figure out how to vote in November … When Colin Powell announced that he would support Joe Biden and former president George W. Bush revealed he would not support Trump, the New York Times reporters a “growing number” of Republicans were debating how far to go.
The speculation about internal handwringing and possible “turning points” within the GOP never ends. It’s the drama that never happens, but one the press loves to keep following.
It needs to stop. The notion that there is a major fissure between the Republicans and President Trump simply masks the character of the modern party. Republicans nominated and elected Donald Trump to be President four years ago. They have stood by him, and done so even in the toughest of times. Nothing, even his “fine people” remarks after a 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville or his recent hardline response to mass marches over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, shakes this.
When we look at President Trump we see the modern party before our very eyes. Stories about internal division mask this basic reality and suggest that there are greater options outside the Democratic Party than actually exist.
When Trump decries those who want to bring down Confederate monuments and treats the job of governance as if it is a third rate reality show, he represents the party. When he invokes former president Richard Nixon and conservative Democrats George Wallace and Frank Rizzo while screaming about “law and order” as a response to civil rights protests, or tweets out “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he speaks for the GOP.
The story of the Trump presidency has been a story about how comfortably he sits within his party. Throughout his term, polls have shown remarkably solid support for the President within the Republican electorate, regardless of his actions. By and large, congressional Republicans have stood by him at every turn, protecting him from investigations and continuing to vote the party line on most issues. Of course, some such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins hem and haw, but that’s the sum total of their profiles in courage.
The saga of Sen. Mitt Romney captures where the party has gone. After launching the #nevertrump “movement” in 2016, Romney ended up going along with the President in the early years. Recently, he has received kudos for standing up to Trump that, while being well deserved, actually reveals how low the bar has moved. When Senator Romney was the only Republican to vote for conviction during the President’s impeachment trial for using foreign policy to help his re-election bid, it said more about what the rest of his party now considered to be acceptable than it did about Romney. When it was a headline to see Romney march with civil rights protesters against police brutality, the moment showed how far the GOP has distanced itself from this basic call for social justice.
The most realistic assessments of the President have come from George Conway, a genuine conservative married to the President’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, knows Trump well. Conway has started the Lincoln Project, launching blistering ads about the President and the entire party. He has consistently blasted former colleagues who suggest that they can distance themselves from the person in the Oval Office.
These are platitudes meant to disguise the choice voters actually face in November, between a party that has gone all in with Trumpism and another that has not. Every American is free to decide which choice they prefer for the next four years, but nobody should be under the illusion that a different option is on the table.