President Trump insisted this week that his meeting with the Republican Senate caucus was a “lovefest,” but there was plenty of evidence to the contrary if you asked some members of his party.
Senator John McCain ostensibly took a dig at the commander-in-chief last Sunday, alleging that those “at the highest-income level found a doctor that would say they have a bone spur” to avoid the Vietnam draft. On Tuesday morning, Senator Bob Corker found himself in another Twitter feud with the leader of his party, invoking a memorable “#AlerttheDaycareStaff” hashtag. And later that same afternoon, Senator Jeff Flake announced his intention not to run for reelection in 2018 by way of a fiery speech against the president from the Senate floor.
Beltway pundits reacted predictably: Senators McCain and Corker were said to be “slamming” the White House, and commentators lauded Senator Flake’s speech as “historic,” “brave,” and many other gratuitously celebratory adjectives. And to be fair, these actions are novel because they are rare.
Most Republican elected officials have stood by their man; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan could teach a masterclass in making excuses, projecting good intentions, and providing endless variations of “I’m not going to comment on that tweet.” Only the abovementioned senators (with one or two additions) have truly criticized the president in public, with most in the party preferring off-the-record handwringing. Compared to the devoted partisanship and sniveling cowardice of the vast majority of the GOP’s elected representatives, any denouncement seems meaningful.
But is there really a functional difference between silent complicity and boisterous evisceration? Senator McCain may be a rare exception, but for Senators Flake and Corker, it’s not clear that their anti-Trumpism is anything but performative.
Senator Flake’s speech was inspiring, for sure. But what does he really lose by bowing out of his tough reelection race in 2018, other than the risk of being beaten by a Trumpian challenger in the primary or a Democrat in the general? Moreover, how was the senator’s speech all that different from his anti-Trump book, Conscience of a Conservative - aside from the fact, of course, that a speech on the Senate floor doesn’t rake in profit while sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list?
Likewise, it should matter that Senator Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has warned that the nation is “separated from chaos” by only a few in the cabinet. But again, aside from also opting out of a raucous reelection fight, what does the senator do to constrain or challenge the man whose “stability” and “competence” he has questioned? Nothing - in fact, he’s hard at work crafting legislation alongside Senator Tom Cotton that will follow the president’s direction to upend the diplomatic agreement preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.
This disconnect between rhetoric and action is what frustrates Democrats and others on the left: if these ‘rebel’ Republicans truly believe that President Trump is bad, why not do something to oppose his agenda? We scour their voting records and grouse that they still follow the party line more than 90 percent of the time, as though conservatives who dislike the president’s odious behavior will simply stop holding their long-held views to spite him.
Senator McCain seems to be at least a partial exception; he faced personal attacks from candidate Trump, and later followed the lead of his fellow Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins to block an attempt to take healthcare away from millions of Americans. The contrast between these few Republicans who have genuinely bucked President Trump’s agenda versus the many who acquiesce to his policies and politics and the few who criticize him to their own benefit poses a question for the left: How can an opposition party incentivize or even reward defections from the majority - and when is it appropriate to do so?
But the problems are even bigger on the right, not least among them the cowardice that underlies performative anti-Trumpism of the Flake-Corker variety. Every Republican who is unwilling to ever seriously oppose President Trump - and who chooses to give up power along the way - is making the party less theirs and more his. They must ask themselves where, exactly, is the nobility in retreat when there are still so many fights to be had.
It’s not an enviable position to be in. But American politics is often a zero-sum game - and at the end of the day, if you aren’t actually part of the opposition, then you’re probably part of the “lovefest.”
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.