The Republican Party’s relationship with its leader is a complicated one. Those with a genuine interest in unpacking that fraught and often tense dynamic will find their work difficult. Those without that kind of curiosity have a much easier task.
For much of the political press, the relationship between Donald Trump and the elected Republicans he leads isn’t complex. Its defining feature isn’t interdependence but dominance. For the most part, “Republicans struggle to criticize Trump.” When a rogue conservative breaks ranks, he is quickly dispatched with by the party or its voters. According to the New York Times, the alacrity with which the GOP united in opposition to Rep. Steve King’s comments expressing support for “white supremacy,” stripping him of his committee assignments and voting unanimously to rebuke him, only highlights their fear of the president. “As Republicans Rush to Condemn Steve King,” the Times stated, “Some Ask: Why Not Trump?”
It’s a strange premise, if only because the body of the article includes a recent criticism of Trump’s racially unenlightened antagonism by the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Thune, although the dispatch deemed that reprimand “mild.” Stranger still, the Times article rewrites recent history. The report insists that the president’s tormented public display following the 2017 murder of an anti-racist demonstrator by a white nationalist protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, elicited almost no pushback from the GOP. Trump’s claim that there were “fine people” among the racist marchers “sent party leaders scurrying for cover,” the Times claims, “even as they took care not to criticize Mr. Trump directly.”
In fact, the cascade of criticism from Republicans following Trump’s remarks—veiled only for the deliberately obtuse—was overwhelming. “We must be clear,” wrote Speaker Paul Ryan. “White supremacy is repulsive … there can be no moral ambiguity.” Sen. Marco Rubio called the event in Charlottesville a “terrorist attack” and placed “100% of the blame” on the white nationalist organizers. “I don’t understand what’s so hard about this,” Rep. Steve Stivers pondered. “[W]e must condemn and marginalize white supremacist groups, not encourage and embolden them,” Sen. Todd Young agreed. “The president was wrong to do that,” Sen. Cory Gardner judged. “One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry,” Sen. Mitt Romney observed. “Morally different universes.” “For the sake of our country,” Jeb Bush implored, “[Trump] must leave no room for doubt that racism and hatred will not be tolerated or ignored by his White House.” And so on.
This was hardly an isolated occurrence. From the moment Trump launched his campaign, the president has repeatedly invited and received the scorn of his fellow Republicans.
Even after Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Republicans criticized him for issuing several days of attacks on Gold Star parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan. “Unacceptable doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “I’m deeply offended,” Rep. Mike Coffman averred. “While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination,” Sen. John McCain said in a statement, “it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.” Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both condemned Trump’s sentiments, albeit without mentioning the party’s nominee by name. “This is so incredibly disrespectful,” Jeb Bush lamented.
After the so-called “Access Hollywood” tape exposed Trump’s penchant for making unwanted sexual advances on women, dozens of Republican lawmakers called on Trump to withdraw from the race. Sens. Mike Pence, Ben Sasse, Mark Kirk, Mike Crapo, Shelley Moore Capito, Jeff Flake, John Thune, Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, Deb Fischer, Cory Gardner, Kelly Ayotte, Ron Portman, and a series of Republican House members and governors condemned Trump’s conduct, rescinded their endorsements or pledged not to vote for him, and demanded his withdrawal from the race.
The condemnations of Trump didn’t end after he won the White House. When Trump re-tweeted videos posted online by a far-right British political group erroneously purporting to show Muslims taking part in acts of violence, Republicans Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, and James Lankford spoke out.
The revelation that the president referred to equatorial nations as “s***hole countries” yielded dozens of denunciations from GOP lawmakers. “Totally inappropriate,” said Sen. Ron Johnson. “[H]e ought to be ashamed of himself,” Sen. Johnny Isakson affirmed. Sen. Susan Collins called the comments “highly inappropriate and out of bounds.” “It’s clearly an unacceptable thing to say,” Sen. Roy Blunt agreed.
Speaker Ryan, Sens. Sasse, Murkowski, and Collins, and Jeb Bush were quick to condemn the “inappropriate” and “undignified” conduct evident in Donald Trump’s tweet describing MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski as “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”
Following the president’s supplicating display on Vladimir Putin’s behalf in Helsinki, a variety of Republicans condemned Trump comments. Sen. John McCain called Trump’s comments a “tragic mistake.” “There is no moral equivalency between the United States and Russia,” Speaker Ryan insisted. Sen. Bob Corker was “disappointed and saddened” by Trump’s performance. Trump “missed an opportunity” to “publicly press President Putin” and communicate a “clear-eyed” vision of American values to the world, said Sen. Chuck Grassley. “I never would have thought that the U.S. President would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands,” mourned Rep. Will Hurd.
The GOP’s willingness to criticize Trump both as president and as the party’s nominee is an extension of its willingness to condemn him as a candidate. When Trump denigrated Sen. McCain’s time in a North Vietnamese POW camp, when he said Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, when he advocated a “Muslim ban,” when he attacked Megyn Kelly in graphic fashion, when he blamed George W. Bush for the 9/11 attacks, when he refused to condemn David Duke and the KKK, mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis, made unflattering remarks about Heidi Cruz, and when he said Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ethnicity clouded his judgment, Republicans “pounced.”
It is true that criticizing the president—the most popular figure in the party—is a substantial risk for Republican lawmakers. It’s also true that these criticisms have not had an appreciable moderating effect on Trump’s behavior. But that’s moving the goalposts. Those who claim that these criticisms are few and far between are seeking to craft a political narrative–one that just happens to dovetail with Democratic efforts to cast Donald Trump and the Republican Party as indistinguishable from one another. But that’s just not the case.