I’m doing something different today. I’m going to share with you something I posted last Friday on Facebook when I wanted to vent a little. I usually don’t post something extemporaneous like this on the blog, as I like to use the blog to share information that can help elucidate issues from the news that I think people might want to understand better, or to highlight news items that aren’t getting enough attention. But I’m hoping that this Facebook post actually will do those things in a way. I think there’s an important point in it about something that’s missing when you watch or read most news, and I hope that will be clarifying for people reading this.
Here’s what I wrote Friday morning:
Why I Wrote It
In the few days leading up to that morning, Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins had both announced they were going to vote no on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary. Their announcements got a ton of attention from the press, and lots of attention and cheers from DeVos opponents all over social media. This began an enthusiastic and very determined search by DeVos’ opponents (mostly on the left, but not entirely) to find one more Republican to vote against DeVos, which was all that was needed to prevent her from being confirmed. At the same time, Senator John McCain was winning plaudits from Democrats all over social media for criticizing Trump’s “travel ban” (and he’d previously spoken out about Trump’s, um, strange relationship with Putin, which had also won him accolades).
But I wrote that Facebook post, and I’m sharing it here now, because I think it’s really important that we (whether “we” is Democrats, progressives, or just anyone who opposes Trump and/or the current GOP agenda) recognize what is really happening. Republicans are putting on a show of standing up to Trump. But they are not – and will not any time soon – directly stand up to Trump in any way that makes a material difference. And they’re also refusing to speak up or press Trump at all on certain items of real importance, like the very questionable way Trump’s has handled his ethics/conflicts issues.
Republicans have thrown their lot in with Trump. And that’s the only reason Trump is able to do all the things he’s doing (even things that don’t require votes from Republicans are still nearly impossible to pull off without their backing). Senator Mitch McConnell kept Republicans in the Senate completely unified in opposition when Obama was President, and it’s the reason they were able to obstruct so much of what Obama and the Democrats tried to do. It wouldn’t have worked if a single one of them had broken away. It’s the working the same way now in reverse with Trump – he’s only been able to get way with so much (choosing unqualified or ethically questionable cabinet nominees, ignoring all ethical norms for his own behavior, going on an executive order spree in his first two weeks) because, in reality, Republicans have been behind him 100%. A few make shows of standing up to him but they only walk right up to the edge, never taking any steps against him that actually make a material difference in his agenda or pose any real risk to their careers.*
But here’s the thing: if you watch or read the news, even if you really stay on top of things & keep informed, you probably haven’t been getting this picture. Because the media keeps reporting “the show” as if it’s actual news. And to be fair, this is accurate reporting – they’re reporting what Republicans are saying and doing in the present moment. But without giving these statements & actions more context, they’re not giving their audience the full story. And it is the same story over & over: Lucy with the football, a different Republican playing Lucy each time.
Here are some examples to help illustrate, and I’m going to start back at the campaign, just to show how long this has been going on & yet the pattern still keeps repeating itself today:
When Trump won the Republican nomination after that extremely nasty primary, where attacks both personal & substantive flew left & right, everyone in the press asked, how can the other guys (meaning mostly Rubio & Cruz) possibly get on board to back Trump after the unbelievably horrible things they said about him? How would they be able to explain themselves?? (Remember, Marco Rubio said he wouldn’t trust Trump with the nuclear codes!). And they did keep the audience hanging in suspense for a few months. But the answer to this was always obvious if you’d been honestly observing the Republican party and the way they’d stuck together to oppose Democrats during the Obama years. They could explain their new found Trump support in one sentence: Hillary Clinton is the devil. It didn’t matter how bad Trump was, no matter what terrible thing they’d said about him, Hillary was worse. They would all get on board with that message. And of course, in the end, that’s exactly what happened.
It was a similar story with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has long been a favorite of the political media. They regard him as something of a Boy Scout, very earnest and forthright, so they really got caught off guard by this one. After Trump got the nomination, Ryan made comments that seemed to indicate that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to back him. The media went into a tizzy over the idea that the Speaker of the House might not back the party’s nominee. But of course that was never going to happen. Ryan needed a little time to save face, because he had just spent the last few months telling us about all the things that were unacceptable about Trump, and now he was about to accept them. So he had to give it a few weeks, during which time he could meet with Trump and then pretend like Trump had said things that reassured Ryan he was really a reasonable guy. And of course, that’s exactly what happened less than a month later when Ryan officially announced he would vote for Donald Trump.
Next, look at Rubio, McCain & Lindsey Graham when it came to the nomination of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. They were out in public barking about it for weeks, saying they didn’t approve and they didn’t know if they could vote for him. Rubio, in particular, got himself weeks of attention with this performance, because he was on the committee that needed to approve of Tillerson before he could move on to the full Senate for a vote. The committee is made up of both Democrats and Republicans, so combined with the Democratic “no” votes, Rubio’s one “no” vote on the GOP side could have stopped Tillerson’s nomination from moving on. So everyone was waiting with bated breath to see what Rubio was going to do. And of course he voted Tillerson out of committee. And then, of course all three of Rubio, McCain & Graham voted in favor of him in the full Senate vote.
And now we have the nearly week long saga of the will-they-or-won’t-they with Betsy DeVos, which of course ended today with just the right number of Republicans voting in favor in order to get her confirmed. I could go on for a while with these examples, but I think you’re probably getting the idea. Republicans make some sort of public statement about how they’re going to resist or stand up to Trump, the media reports it completely credulously, and the public – understandably – buys into the hype and waits in suspense to find out if this time, maybe, maybe this time, one of the Republicans will come through for us.
But Don’t Give Up!
But please note!!! Even though we haven’t gotten Republicans to give Trump any true resistance yet despite how they keep teasing it, I am not saying that you shouldn’t bother trying. The anti-Trump movement has been very motivated and enthusiastic and well, awesome, so far. In addition to all the protests we’ve seen, they’re going to town hall meetings, they’ve made tons of calls and sent letters & emails & even faxes tell their Senators to vote against Trump’s cabinet nominees – Betsy DeVos in particular. And just because that didn’t work to prevent DeVos from getting confirmed, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. Even though this is a very cynical post about how Republicans are going to continue caving to Trump, the resistance coming from the anti-Trump side still matters. (Matthew Yglesias at Vox just wrote a really good piece on this, so I’ll let him explain in detail all the ways the resistance is working.)
Those Senators and Congressmembers still register the protests, even if they don’t immediately act on it. So at the very least, even if they’re going to cave to Trump, we’re making it a lot harder on them. And it actually is causing them to slow down or scale back their agenda in other areas, like with the repeal of Obamacare (they’re still going to do it, but at least now they’re putting some more thought into how to go about it, more aware that there will be political consequences if they get it wrong). And even Trump and his people have been rattled by the size & ferocity of the opposition to him, though of course they’d never admit it to the public. Importantly, this resistance will likely keep both Trump and Republicans from expanding their list of agenda items (or the scope of particular items already in the works) beyond their initial wish list, whereas successful implementation without any public resistance would’ve likely encouraged them to keep pushing the envelope even further.
And I do think it’s possible that for Republicans, Trump will eventually be more trouble than he’s worth. They will eventually tire of defending him & living with all the chaos and then they will actually start to give him genuine pushback. It’s not going to happen any time soon, it likely won’t happen until after they’ve passed much of their agenda. And it will mostly be among Republicans whose states or districts are not the reddest of the red. (Trump is still extremely popular among his Republican base, and will likely stay that way). But eventually the tide could turn, and when it does, we will be able to see how different real pushback looks as compared to Republicans putting on a show.
*I want to give a little credit to two Republicans who have taken a bit more of a risk in speaking out against Trump. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona have both spoken out pretty forcefully against Donald Trump. Unlike McCain, neither of these two has the safety of having just won reelection. Flake in particular is at risk, as he’s up for reelection in 2018, and pro-Trump groups are already looking to target him in the primary. Sasse is a freshman Senator who will be up for reelection in 2020. He was very vocally & consistently against Trump prior to the election as well. We haven’t seen either of them actually take a vote that would stop a Trump agenda item, and they’ve also both made it clear they intend to work with Trump on numerous agenda items.