Absent political costs for failing to oppose a President who is advancing policies (if not rhetoric) with which Republican elected officials agree, it is unlikely that Republican elected official behavior about Trump will change. It is up to those on the left and right who find Trump loathsome to make it more politically costly to support him than to oppose him.
I would like to think that if I were a Republican elected official in a district that Trump won, I would loudly denounce the President on principle and call for his removal. I would be on the right side of history, and be safe in the knowledge that President Pence would continue to advance an agenda with which I agree. But I am not a Republican elected official whose job relies on supporters of the President – and besides, few of us are as brave in real life as we are in our imaginations.
There are all sorts of very good reasons for Republican elected officials to stand up and say “Trump is a Republican in name only and he must go.” Trump, after all, violates many of the historic values and policies of the Grand Old Party. From cozying up to Russia and threatening trade wars, to ignoring the long-term fiscal challenges faced by Social Security and equating Jefferson with Lee, Trump is stomping on the legacies of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan.
But politics isn’t about abstractions. Politics is about making abstractions real. Piety may good enough for preachers, pundits, and professors but someone has to make the trains run on time.
What therefore is to be done?
Just like the rest of us, politicians behave in ways that make sense to them. We all try to make sense of our world in ways that make what we’re already doing, or that we reasonably could do, a good idea. With that in mind, if I were a Republican trying to find good reasons not to anger the people who hired me (my voters) or anger someone who could get those voters angry (the President) I might reason thusly:
Trump is a nutter. Probably racist, certainly venal and untrustworthy. Not a lot I can do about that. He’s in office and absent a heart attack he’s not going anywhere soon.
I am getting judges I want. Whatever short-term damage that is being done is outweighed by the long-term benefits of good judges.
No conservative policies are advancing, but none would anyway. It’s not like Schumer or Pelosi would cooperate with Pence.
Picking a fight with Trump or his voters gets me nothing I want, at the very least it makes my life difficult, and could cost me my job – and if I’m not in Congress some real right wing or left wing nut could get elected, which would certainly be worse.
It’s not clear what could be done anyway. Impeachment takes forever so I can think about that later, the idea of Article 25 is far-fetched and something I can think about later, we don’t have snap elections or recalls for the president, so it’s not clear what I can do even if I wanted to.
Therefore I am going to condemn violence, talk about shared American values, and hope this goes away.
If this is all true, then there are two necessary steps.
First, what is to be done? What specifically would get Trump out of office? (It’s pretty clear nothing can shut him up). Two ideas here, one of which is incredibly unlikely, the other of which is merely improbable: Demand his resignation for the good of the Republican Party and the good of the nation; or publicly proclaim Trump is not a Republican and does not speak for Republican values or the Republican Party. I am sure there are other options – you are clever readers, what else could an elected Republican reasonably do?
Second, create the incentives to make the action less risky than inaction. Elected officials (like the rest of us) overweight risks and underweight gains. That, combined with the electoral reality that one cannot be “more” elected the more votes one gets, makes those in office look first to what they have to lose rather than what they have to gain. Right now, there appears to be little or no electoral consequence for riding the Trump crazy train, frowning meaningfully from time to time, and then going to lunch. Any potential loss is outweighed by the fear of Trump, or Trump-inspired, reprisal in the form of a primary challenge. That means those who want Republican elected officials to do more than frown need to up the stakes.
One way to do this is to tie Trump and all that he says and does to the word Republican. This can have the effect of making it more difficult for an elected official to say “of course I disagree with Trump’s words, but Republicans believe…” Make Republicans own Trump. Tarnish the brand. This creates political friction to which candidates could respond. For example:
“Republican Trump praised by the KKK”
“Republican Trump thanks Russian dictator for expelling US diplomats”
“Republican Trump says the threat of nuclear war is good for business”
And when talking about the Republican elected official say things like:
“Trump Republican XXXX continues to accept the support of Nazis”
“Trump Republican XXXX refuses to condemn the President’s endorsement of the threat of nuclear attack on Guam as being good for business”
“Trump Republican XXXX refuses to stand up to Putin’s expelling US diplomats”
In conversations, town halls, and interviews as the incumbent things like:
“Does Trump speak for the Republican Party?”
“Does the Republican Party accept the endorsement of the KKK?”
“Does the Republican Party believe the threat of nuclear war is good for Guam?”
“Does the Republican Party support Putin’s ouster of American diplomats from Russia?”
By making “Republican,” “Trump,” and “<Incumbent/candidate>” synonymous those opposing Trump may be able to create a disincentive to continue to support Trump, and an incentive to distance themselves from him. Until and unless that happens, we’re in for more of the same.