Why Some Republican Leaders Are Defecting to Biden | Opinion

In recent days, leading members of the Republican Party establishment have thrown their weight behind Joe Biden's presidential campaign. Colin Powell endorsed Biden last month, while dozens of former senior officeholders in Republican administrations have started political action committees that directly support Biden. Even George Bush and Mitt Romney have reportedly said they will not vote for Trump. Although lost among the news of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass joblessness, street protests and reports about a Russian program that put bounties on the lives of American soldiers, the support of leading Republicans for a Democratic candidate nonetheless represents a political earthquake.

There are four possible explanations. The first explanation boils down to policy differences. While most Republican officeholders fear President Trump's influence over Republicans who vote in primaries, they and others in the Republican establishment disagree with the president's policies. They welcome, rather than fear, immigration; they support international trade and engagement; and they reject the president's coronavirus policy (or non-policy). In short, the Republican Party is cracking up—with its smaller, but wealthy, business wing drawing apart from its more numerous socially conservative, evangelical and nationalist foot soldiers.

The problem with this view is that, in fact, the business/evangelical coalition remains fairly strong. Republicans of all stripes delight in Trump's tax cuts, regulatory rollback and appointment of conservative judges. If the Republican Party were really splitting, we would see serious efforts to create a third national party. Back in the 1990s, Ross Perot founded the Reform Party for just this purpose—hoping to peel off anti-trade, anti-immigration conservatives from the Republican Party. (Donald Trump briefly joined the Reform Party, in 2000.)

Today, with the Republican Party dominated by more isolationist-leaning forces, we might expect unhappy Republicans to establish a more business-friendly party. But that is not happening. And on the contrary, throwing their weight behind Democrats, who may turn out to be quite anti-business, especially if Democrats seize control of both the Senate and the presidency, would seem to go firmly against the ideological interests of mainstream Republicans.

The second theory is that top Republicans have finally heeded warnings from Trump's critics that the president is an autocrat—or perhaps is likely to become one. Some leading Republicans could believe that they will have more influence in a Democratic administration, especially one that could be sent packing in 2024 or 2028, than in a would-be Trump dictatorship. But the theory that Trump would usher in a fascist dictatorship was never plausible, and would not likely impress experienced professional politicians. In fact, for all his intemperate remarks and threats, President Trump has largely followed his predecessors and complied with the legal and constitutional limits of the presidency.

The third theory is that Republican leaders simply think that Trump is an incompetent president—not in the sense of mental incompetence (though some people think that), but in the sense of unable to exercise the levers of power in a way that advances the public interest, the interests of the Republican Party or the interests of the majority of voters. Trump's failure, on this view, is a mixture of temperament and ability. Trump has no interest in administering the executive branch, which involves the complicated, time-consuming and frustrating task of vetting and appointing qualified personnel, giving them guidance, supervising them and ensuring that they have adequate resources and support.

Trump's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the avoidable controversies engendered by his responses to protests against police misconduct, the cratering economy and rising tensions with the rest of world—all of these problems raise questions about Trump's ability to discharge his duties. And if Trump fumbles in crisis after crisis, the Republican Party's reputation for competence in managing the economy and foreign relations will be badly damaged. This harm will last long after Trump leaves the scene.

Presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee
Presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

And this leads to a fourth theory. Trump's reliable defenders—Stephen Bannon comes to mind—would have a ready explanation for the defection of Republican ex-officials to Biden. The elites fear a loss of power. As Pat Buchanan put it in a campaign speech in 1996:

You watch the establishment of all the knights and barons, and they're riding into the castle, pulling up the draw bridge real fast. All the peasants are coming with pitchforks, too.

Buchanan was talking about Republican elites who feared the ascendance of a populist, as he styled himself, and closed ranks around Bob Dole, the establishment Republican candidate during that presidential cycle. The Trump view, according to those like Bannon, is that the Republican establishment is corrupt and that it disregards the values and interests of ordinary Americans.

On the other hand, we may wonder whether peasants with their pitchforks offer a viable alternative governing strategy. Trump's appeal as a candidate did draw on this notion—known in common parlance as "demagoguery"—but the peasants-with-pitchforks style, even if effective in a presidential campaign, has left much to be desired as a theory of governance. Trump never abandoned his hostility to elite institutions as he moved from candidate to president, and the result has been the undermining of government and civic institutions, from the FBI to the courts to the press.

Republican leaders may have finally realized that any future Republican program to lower taxes, cut regulation and protect the country requires that the government institutions that carry out those functions are effective rather than in ruins. That is why they have political, as well as public-regarding, reasons to throw their support to Biden.

Eric Posner is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and is the author of the The Demagogue's Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.