Criticizing Trump is like any popularity contest. Despite the overwhelming response, it’s usually the same few people whose names get pulled out the hat and who get to stand on the stage. It’s no secret that Flake, Corker, and McCain have been vocally anti-Trump and their boss takes disloyalty very personally. Unlike the rest of the party, Flake, Corker, and McCain form something of a small cabal of Republicans willing to speak out against Trump.
There is the question of why it’s usually these three. And why are the rest of the GOP staying silent? Is it simply to cling onto power or is there something else going on?
None of the previous three have embraced Trump as many in the GOP have. McCain has been consistently anti-Trump as has Jeff Flake. Corker publicly joined the criticism after Trump’s Tweets about North Korea, feeling that Trump was irresponsible and impulsive to the point of madness. Corker stepped up his criticism after he announced his resignation as a Senator from Tennessee. What binds these men together against Trump is not just the pre-Trump conservative politics but their situations.
John McCain has an inoperable tumor which will eventually kill him. Jeff Flake is the most unpopular Senator in Congress and, along with Bob Corker, fears what a pro-Trump candidate will do to him in the primaries. All of this frees them from their obligations of loyalty to the President. In other words, they have nothing to lose in attacking Trump or speaking out against him publicly.
It might not have much effect, even right now when Trump is trying to heal relations in the GOP. However, it makes a difference. Trump might be pleased to see the back of his enemies, but it would have been better for him if they stayed to fight it out. Without the incumbent, elections get harder to predict and make it easy for others like the Democrats to stage an upset.
It is also clear that all three have the power to derail Trump’s legislative efforts. Since they aren’t running for re-election, they can vote with their conscience without fear of reprisals. With such a slim majority of two in the Senate, all three Senators can easily derail Trump’s legislation for at least another year. They won’t vote against everything Trump puts forward, but they’ll make life very difficult for Trump and McConnell.
But why the deafening silence in the GOP? Are they simply toeing the line in order to stay in power? That seems to be the main answer, but it’s more complicated than that. Many in the party are wary of attacking Trump because of his popularity with the Republican base and their own re-election chances. They’ve seen Trump deflect attacks before, watched him survive controversies that would have normally ended the careers of others. They face a Hobson’s choice: stand with Trump and be damned by the moderates or move against him and lose Republican voters. As far as the base is concerned, Trump won and the GOP should thank him for all he’s apparently done. If they play ball, they might get voted back in again.
Trump seems unassailable as long as the party is behind him. While the GOP is largely behind Trump, it is clear that there are still tensions below the surface. Moderates are pitted against extreme views and pro-Trump sentiment from their colleagues and their voters. Corker, Flake, and McCain may have been voicing opinions that others are too scared to voice, but dissent is growing in the ranks.
Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell frequently annoy everyone with their inability to lead or get things done. If the GOP rises up, it will be to claim their scalps to satisfy their base. Trump might be spared but it will be more of a temporary reprieve. Any new leadership will be less willing to bend to Trump’s wishes and may be more difficult to remove if they do unless they are simply more of Trump’s yes men. Even then, the party is so fractured and disunited that it makes no difference who leads the troops.
The silence will not last forever nor will Trump’s attempts of building bridges heal the wounds. Trump is too unreliable, his temper too uneven. He blows hot and cold and it’s getting very annoying for all involved. His short-term wins are turning into long-term defeats and Republicans are eyeing mid-terms, and the elections before them, with great dread. Bannon and the alt-right want to claim more establishment scalps and Roy Moore may be part of a trend, pro-Trump winning out over moderates. Corker and Flake provide fertile ground for this trend to continue.
The Republicans are trying to hedge their bets and they will be watching the remaining elections in Alabama and Virginia closely. If the Republican win it easily, they’ll follow Trump. If it’s a close win, especially in Virgina and Alabama, there will be grumbles but nothing more.
But if Democrats squeak through and win, heads may start rolling and panic will set in. Setbacks in Congress are bound to add fuel to the fire. Republican voters will turn on their representatives and then, like Flake and Corker, they’ll have nothing to lose. As any soldier will tell you, when your enemy has nothing to lose, they become that much more dangerous.
Maybe then, we will see the veil of silence lifted.