By Daniel W. Drezner / Special To The Washington Post
If you grant Republican officeholders anonymity, most of them will tell you that they disapprove of Donald Trump. During his presidency I recorded well over 2,500 examples of his supporters talking about him like he was a toddler. That trope has not gone away since the end of his presidency.
If you force congressional Republican leaders to act on this disapproval, however — as Trump’s second impeachment trial did — you get a wider set of reactions. And the international relations scholar in me cannot help but observe that these responses are akin to the choices countries face when confronted with an existential threat.
Some congressional Republicans have decided to bandwagon — or appease — the threat. Toadies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are willing to do or say anything to stay in Trump’s good graces, despite the fact that Trump threatened them just last month. They see him as the engine who will drive the base out and push the GOP over the top in the midterms and 2024.
A smaller group of Republicans decided to balance. Ten GOP House representatives and seven senators voted to impeach and convict Trump. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s the largest number of same-party officials to cast such votes in U.S. history, making this impeachment the most bipartisan one ever. Of course, the response by GOP state parties has been to censure those officials, so we will see how they survive as a bloc.
The third and largest category merits the most attention: the buck-passers. If confronting an existential threat is a public good, the buck-passers are the free riders. They do not want to see the threat grow more serious, but they also do not want to engage in costly actions to counter it. Therefore, they mostly get out of the way and hope that the others who confront the threat succeed but at a cost; leaving them as the strongest actors standing.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., epitomizes this faction. He refused to try Trump a second time while he was still president, thereby ginning up a flimsy legal pretext to vote to acquit Trump. Immediately after that vote, however, he gave a speech that confirmed everything the House impeachment managers said during the trial.
McConnell also made the extraordinary suggestion that the 45th president will face punishment in the legal system: “Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. … We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.”
McConnell’s buck-passing strategy from here on is simple: Do nothing and count on others to cut Trump down to size, either through criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, private sanctions, medical infirmity, or just a slow waning of his popularity. That echoes what a lot of Republican senators are saying anonymously. The Hill’s Alexander Bolton talked to a number of them expressing that view, quoting one saying, “Unwittingly, [Democrats] are doing us a favor. They’re making Donald Trump disqualified to run for president.”
Will it work? It seems easy to scoff at this strategy given how it played out in 2016, but history does not necessarily repeat itself. For one thing, McConnell is correct about Trump’s precarious legal situation. As Jonathan Chait has observed, Trump’s criminal liability is not insignificant.
The politics are different in the 2020s as well. In 2016 Trump had no record of governance. In 2021 Trump exited office with abysmal approval ratings and a wreck of a legacy. Failed one-term presidents usually do not exercise much political power after they leave office.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver recently made the case that Trump’s political potency has taken a serious hit over the course of the past six weeks, and the polling numbers back up Silver’s claim. The Atlantic’s David Frum made the most powerful case for this line of argument:
“The background fact of this second Trump impeachment trial was how broadly popular it was. In January, a Monmouth survey found that 56 percent of Americans wanted Trump convicted. Quinnipiac reported that 59 percent regard him as responsible for inciting violence against the U.S. government. According to ABC/The Washington Post, 66 percent believe that Trump acted irresponsibly during the post-election period. According to polls, fewer than a quarter believed that Trump did ‘nothing wrong’ on Jan. 6.
“Those are not the numbers on which to base a Grover Cleveland-style comeback tour-especially not when the majority of Americans also believe that Donald Trump did a bad job handling the COVID-19 pandemic and that President Joe Biden is doing a good job.”
Even Trump’s allies acknowledge that the second impeachment trial weakened him, a noted contrast from what they were saying a week ago. He remains off major social media, making it more difficult for him to stir things up. Even as Trump tries to reenter the public eye, the focus will shift to Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and McConnell as the key players in legislation and policy. Trump has his allies in elected positions, but most of them are backbenchers lacking agenda-setting power. It is possible that Trump and his advisers see all of this and decide there’s little point to risking a 2024 run.
All that said, I do not completely buy it. Trump might be reviled by the majority of the country, but he still commands strong support within the GOP; Quinnipiac finds that 75 percent of Republicans want Trump to play a prominent role in the party. If he was intent on running in 2024 he would automatically be the favorite to secure the nomination; especially since so many other challengers are either amoral quislings or Trump wannabes minus his flamboyance.
Silver argues that if the GOP establishment acts as “The Party Decides” thesis stipulates they should act, Trump would not win the nomination in 2024. But that requires that buck-passers such as McConnell stop passing the buck at some point.
Color me unpersuaded. They stood on the sidelines or supported Trump in 2016, in 2020, and now in 2021. If Trump retains the support of his base, it seems unlikely that their spines will stiffen in 2024.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.