Neil Buchanan: What Will It Take for Republicans To Dump Trump?

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Sen. John McCain (L) (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) (R-SC) at the U.S. Capitol November 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Everyone is still trying to figure out what to make of the last two weeks of nonstop news about Donald Trump's unraveling presidency. His trip abroad is generating a bit of news (including his curtsy to a Saudi ruler), but until he inevitably becomes unhinged by the rigors of travel and diplomacy, the rest of the world will have some time to digest the multitude of shocking revelations that led to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Trump/Russia mess.

The overarching question that has generated serious political commentary is whether and when any Republicans will turn against Trump. Until that happens, he is in no danger of being forced from the White House. Of course, even something short of Trump's removal from office is a win for sanity, both because nonstop drama will derail the Republicans' regressive policy agenda and because it will keep Trump's supporters on the defensive in the 2018 midterm elections.

Still, it is reasonable to wonder what exactly it will take to shake a few Republicans loose. As it happens, this is a subspecies of a question that I have been asking for the past few years, which is when the Republicans' headlong rush into fact-free extremism will push enough people to oppose them.

In late 2015, for example, I wrote " At This Point, Would Any Republican Ever Leave the Party? " along with three follow-up columns on Dorf on Law ( here, here, and here ). I focused there on whether the Republican Party is still home to any moderates, in a sense of that word that is more meaningful than simply "not quite as far out on the right fringe as the others."

Once Trump emerged as the Republican nominee and then shocked everyone by stumbling into an Electoral College win, the question was whether the supposed leaders of the Republican Party would actively oppose anything that he did. Needless to say, they have instead been cowering in their offices and refusing to criticize their new overlord.

With everything that has recently come to light, however, the question again becomes whether any Republicans will rouse themselves into action, putting true patriotism above party and political careerism. We are seeing some mild stirrings, but it is far too early to have any confidence that anyone will stand up and be counted.

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One way to think about this is to look at the specific people whose reputations and track records make them the most obvious candidates to oppose Trump. Unfortunately, the Bush family, Senators John McCain and Susan Collins, and a few others have consistently failed to live up to their hype.

And sure enough, just when McCain made headlines last week by calling the current situation of "Watergate size and scale," he immediately weaseled away from his almost-brave maverickiness.

As CBS News put it : "But in an interview with Fox News's Chris Wallace on 'Fox News Sunday,' McCain appeared to walk back his previous comments, saying he was referring to the administration's managing of the situation, and not the scandal itself." Profiles in courage this is not, at least so far.

Rather than focusing on specific individuals who might ride to the rescue, however, it might make more sense to describe the conditions—both internal and external—that would lead a Republican to break with Trump.

In other words, we need to think about a Republican office-holder or grandee who is being confronted with the ongoing embarrassments and evidence of possible crimes and treason by his or her president and who finally says, "No more."

These people, we must remember, are still Republicans, which means that they have not been driven away by the climate change denialism, the dog-whistle racism that became Trump's open bigotry, the efforts to give to the rich and take from the poor, the aggressive attempts to control women's bodies and so on. For most of the party, those are their reasons for being Republicans, after all, rather than reasons to quit.

So, we are asking what the conditions are that would make an extreme conservative possibly turn against Trump, which would possibly lead to setbacks in Republicans' policy and electoral goals.

Although it is true that most Republicans live in the Fox News bubble, it does not appear possible that they are able to remain blissfully unaware of what is going on. Even a congressman from one of the most pro-Trump districts in the country had recently begun to wonder whether "[t]his Trump thing is sustainable."

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That particular Republican congressman, it turns out, happens to watch CNN. But most of his constituents do not, so when only one of a series of his town hall meetings had any anti-Trump acrimony, the congressman decided that there was little downside to sticking with Trump.

None of which is surprising, nor is it meaningful for assessing Trump's future. A first-term congressman from rural Kentucky does not hold the key to the impeachment process.

The point is that Republican officeholders cannot escape the news about Trump. Even those who insist on listening only to friendly news sources are confronted by reporters asking about the latest controversies. The vast majority will be unmoved, but their " epistemic closure " is not sufficient to allow them simply to remain ignorant about what is happening.

What really will make the difference? That is, what factors could come together to allow some Republicans to break ranks?

The most obvious possibility is for someone who is nearing the end of the political road to decide to do the right thing. For example, when the Republican leadership needed to find enough Republican votes over the last few years to pass increases in the debt ceiling, they would rely on the handful of retiring House members each term to do the right thing.

This, indeed, is a recurrent theme in literature and cinema, with the grizzled and compromised anti-hero suddenly standing up for what is right. Think about movies with contract killers and other bad guys who want at long last to do something good and decent before they die.

A variation on this theme was Clint Eastwood's film "Gran Torino," where he played what we might call a "casual xenophobe" who learns that he is dying and sacrifices himself to save an immigrant family.

Of course, not everyone who is leaving office is suddenly going to find their integrity. Some are so morally compromised by years of political gymnastics that they simply do not know what integrity means. Others, such as the hyper-partisan Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, are young and almost certainly clinging to delusions of future political greatness. Even so, Chaffetz has shown some mild signs of breaking with Trump before he leaves office next month.

Short of retirement, some politicians might feel some safety in breaking from Trump if their own reelection races are years away. Republican senators who are not up for reelection until 2020 or 2022 would fall into this category, especially that earlier group, because they need to ask themselves whether they want to run for reelection down the ballot from Trump.

Neither of these conditions—being near retirement or being far away from facing the voters—is sufficient, of course. John McCain won reelection in 2016, after all, and he will either retire in 2022 or run again at age 86. Even so, as noted above, he is at best wobbly right now.

Then there are the people who will run for reelection very soon but are simply scared that backing Trump will be worse for them than abandoning him. That one Kentucky congressman is not in danger, but many in somewhat competitive districts are. For them, the balance is between risking a challenge in their primaries and being stained with the R label in a general election.

Perhaps the most difficult question is how to find Republican officeholders who would be willing to sustain the punishments that would come from turning against Trump. There are all kinds of institutional punishments that can be meted out against turncoats, from losing prime committee assignments to the pettiest matters of being given bad office space and losing parking privileges.

But the more important punishments are external. There is unfortunately a large faction of Trump supporters who will immediately attack anyone who weakens on Trump. Although I do not engage with social media, I am not one to downplay the fear that the Republican targets of these onslaughts must feel—especially because such attacks sometimes include death threats.

In short, unless some huge new revelation turns this into a full-on run for the exits by Republicans, Trump will go down only when there are enough Republicans in the House and Senate who in one way or another do not care about their political futures and are willing to deal with the professional and personal harm that they will risk to themselves and their families.

On the other hand, politicians are often looking for a way to build a legacy. People today do not remember the vast majority of Republicans who stuck with Richard Nixon to the bitter end, but newspapers have recently been filled with Howard Baker's name, recounting his history-turning role in the Watergate hearings.

Again, most Republicans seem perfectly happy to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to voting rights, climate change, inequality, women's rights, same-sex marriage (although that has notably shifted) and so on. They also seem largely unworried by Trump's manifest unfitness for the presidency.

But some number of them could wake up one day soon and say: "Some things are too big to ignore. I love my country and the Constitution. When my story is told, I want to be remembered as a patriot."

Will there be enough Republicans who finally decide that the country must be saved?

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.