Bob Corker is the latest member of the president's party to denounce him after enabling him.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
One of the most remarkable things about Hillary Clinton's latest disastrous presidential campaign was her aggressive effort to court Republicans. Her aides reached out to former GOP officials, business leaders, and even current politicians to let it be known that as president, Clinton would be open to collaboration. (She was also trying to get some of them to support her publicly.) Donald Trump had such obvious deficiencies and would be so obviously unreliable as commander-in-chief that it seemed likely many Republicans would see him as a danger and might even throw their support to a Democrat.
As part of this strategy, Clinton's campaign cut ads highlighting Republican opposition to Trump. Republican officials from previous presidential administrations appeared onstage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Conservative intellectuals like James Buckley publicly despaired over Trump. As Election Day neared, several Republican senators announced they wouldn't vote for him or at least pulled their endorsements.
Critically, however, the vast majority of rogue elected Republicans stopped short of endorsing Clinton, sometimes promising to vote for a third party—or, even more quixotically, writing in VP nominee Mike Pence's name.
And for all the media attention the "never Trump" Republicans garnered, they don't appear to have affected the election in a real way. According to exit polls, 90 percent of self-identified Republicans who voted cast ballots for Trump; by comparison, 89 percent of self-identified Democratic voters went for Clinton. Her campaign's outreach, the warnings of so many prominent conservatives—none of that stuff mattered. Meanwhile, Evan McMullin, a conservative third-party candidate, was a non-factor everywhere but Utah despite receiving more than his share of media attention. The GOP chose Trump in the primaries, and it chose him again on November 8, with the party's elites mostly going along for the ride.
That's the appropriate lens through which to view the spats pitting prominent Republicans against the alleged serial sexual assailant who is now president of the United States. This weekend's episode featured Tennessee senator Bob Corker, who said on Twitter that "the White House has become an adult day care center" before telling the New York Times that Trump has hurt negotiations with North Korea and that he risked putting the world "on the path to World War III." (Corker was apparently responding to Trump badmouthing him on Twitter.)
"The vast majority of our caucus understands what we're dealing with here," Corker told the Times.
Corker is not running for reelection and therefore presumably feels free to speak his mind, unlike his Republican colleagues who might have similar views but have to face pro-Trump voters. But if Corker honestly thinks Trump is such a threat, it's fair to ask why he embraced Trump so ardently last year, telling a crowd in July that Trump "loves you."
It's also fair to ask the constellation of Republicans who have voiced opposition to Trump where they were when the forces that enabled his rise were percolating. When he became prominent in right-wing circles in 2011 by spreading the racist lie that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US, Trump was enabled primarily by FOX News, who gave him airtime, and hardly discouraged by elected Republicans. State lawmakers in the GOP advanced bills that would have force presidential candidates to prove they were citizens; even years later, some Republicans publicly contemplated impeaching Obama over the issue. (Jeff Flake, the Arizona senator who has been among Trump's staunchest Republican critics, was among the few elected GOP officials to speak out against birtherism.)
Even before Trump's birther crusade, the GOP base was primed for something like Trumpism. For years, Republicans have been turning against expert opinion and the mainstream media while making wink-wink appeals to prejudice—Corker himself benefitted from an ad that targeted his 2006 Democratic opponent, a black man, with a barely concealed racial message, making him one of many Republicans who quietly tolerated his party's baser instincts.
Trump was simply more brazen in his disdain for the establishment than everyone else. When he stripped away the intellectual window-dressing from conservatism, it turned out that very few voters cared about that window-dressing in the first place. Clinton spent the 2016 campaign pointing out what a loose cannon Trump was, but that didn't work—the Republican voters she targeted often wanted a loose cannon. And they still want him: The latest Gallup tracking numbers show that 81 percent of Republicans approve of Trump, and even a recent AP poll that had Trump's overall rating down to 32 percent found that 67 percent of Republicans still backed the president.
That puts Republicans like Corker in a bind. Whatever else they might believe, they seem to be at least somewhat appalled by Trump's behavior as president. They are likely sincere when they criticize him—given his popularity with their own voters, it's hard to imagine otherwise. But they are also responsible for him.
They could have tried to steer their party in a more moderate direction in the past few elections. Instead, they did nothing as their party shifted further and further to the right, as Fox News spread misinformation about everything from Affordable Care Act "death panels" to climate change, as their more extreme colleagues weaponized anti-Obama rage. When it became apparent that Trump was a serious contender because he could wield that rage more effectively than they could, these politicians could have fallen in line behind a consensus anti-Trump candidate. Instead, they remained divided until it was too late. If they were really worried about Trump as a threat to the country, they could have endorsed Clinton. Instead, they talked some nonsense about write-ins and third-party candidates.
Maybe doing those things would have resulted in Republicans losing some elections. But if the stakes are, as Corker suggested, as high as stopping a potential "World War III," maybe losing elections would have been a worthwhile price to pay.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.