The Republican Party is falling apart. Donald Trump is dropping in the polls and hemorrhaging support from his party’s elected leaders after his recent rampage of disturbed performances following a series of scandals. Unable to restrain himself or soothe his ego without exacting revenge, Trump veered into the oncoming traffic of deeply damaging storylines over the last two weeks. Those revelations include past shaming of a former Ms. Universe contestant over her weight, manipulating the tax code to avoid paying federal taxes for the better part of two decades, bragging about acts of sexual domination and assault into a hot mic before an appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005, and groping a seemingly inexhaustible list of women now emerging from obscurity. Rather than play damage control, Trump surrogates actively bragged about his “genius” tax avoidance while the candidate dismissed his disturbing sexual comments as nothing but “locker room talk.” And so yet again, as he did with his remarks on Mexican rapists, on captured POWs, on the Muslim Ban, and on Judge Curiel and Khzir Khan, Trump has forced the political party that leant him its ballot-line to repudiate his conduct. But try as they might to separate themselves from their standard-bearer’s noxious behavior, Republican officials just can’t seem to quit Trump. Distance without disavowal.
In a normal political environment, Trump couldn’t get away with any of what’s going on right now. Not the racist, sexist, far-right demagogy part—that’s actually been remarkably successful for many GOP politicians. Rather, the extraordinary factor in Trump’s ascent is how little deference he has shown to party leaders and how easily he has bullied them without repercussion. For all the talk of the unprecedented number of Republican leaders refusing to support the Trump campaign, what may be more incredible is how few defections there have been. Trump has bludgeoned party leaders, donors, and even his own supporters at every turn in this campaign. That so many are still willing to stand by him as he drags them through the dregs of sex tapes and Bill Clinton’s accusers reflects the true predicament bedeviling the party. Trump, one day, shall pass. The GOP’s real problem is not the candidate, but the voters who enable him.
Think of what Trump has been able to get away with this cycle. He began his campaign with a refusal to commit to supporting a Republican nominee other than himself. Instead, he threatened almost daily to run as an independent unless he was “treated properly.” He kept braying about his poor treatment even as he flayed the party’s frontrunners with devastating attacks unusual in intraparty primaries. He humiliated Jeb Bush and went to war with the entire Bush family. In doing so, he labeled the party’s last president a liar and a failure. He viciously attacked the party’s last two nominees in the most caustic terms, seething after they wouldn’t endorse him. Perhaps most damagingly, Trump has at various times lit into the Republican congressional leadership and the Republican National Committee for failing to provide unequivocal support for every disgusting thing he’s said and done. Though Reince Preibus is nothing more than a lapdog at this point, Trump has not missed an opportunity to beat him mercilessly after even the tiniest bite. Then there’s Trump’s favorite foil, Paul Ryan. The abusive manner in which Trump has handled Ryan has included pointed barbs when Ryan equivocated on endorsing Trump, a churlish refusal to endorse Ryan in his primary months later for no apparent reason, and his latest outbursts in response to Ryan’s refusal to defend Trump’s actions. For all the talk of Trump’s inability to resist attacking women who threaten him, his greatest vulnerability appears to be lashing out at Republicans who won’t pledge complete fealty. Only the debased and gutless Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie will do. Needless to say, this is not how party politics have traditionally worked.
So why are things different now? It’s not enough to say that Trump’s unique persona and the current GOP’s fecklessness have allowed this dynamic to persist. Although presidential candidates become their party’s nominal leader during the campaign, there is usually an institutional limit to that power. Even ignoring that presidents need congress to enact their agenda once elected—Trump obviously doesn’t care about that—there is another more basic reason why candidates cannot fully divorce themselves from the party that elevated them. Normally, congressional and state officials are well respected by the party rank and file in their respective regions. That’s because partisans are deeply invested in their political party and have developed loyalty to their party’s representatives. And so, presidential nominees are not freestanding rock-stars, their popularity is tied to their leadership and interconnectedness with party structures. Hillary Clinton is largely popular with Democrats because she is a Democrat. An alternate universe in which she mocked rather than praised Barack Obama and called past party achievements “disasters” would have undermined the attribute her supporters found most attractive, a core commitment to the party they are so invested in. This is both why one of Bernie Sanders’s greatest weaknesses in the primary was his past criticism of President Obama and why party nominees invariably gain in popularity among their own party’s supporters after a primary race ends. Voters largely choose based on party and then search for personal reasons to like their particular candidate.
The transformation of Republican rhetoric and the decentralization of the party’s power from congressional leaders to fringe media personalities, however, has steadily (and now rapidly) altered that familiar pattern. Right-wing messaging for the last two decades has been to denigrate government institutions, equate compromise with surrender, and demonize the opposition. Republican base voters, already unusually susceptible to the radical ramblings of cult personalities from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity to the newly ascendant conspiracy-monger Alex Jones of Infowars, were perfect marks for Trump. It is these very voters who continue to support Trump even as the larger public has turned in revulsion against him. A recent poll found that 74% of Republicans still want party leaders to stand with Trump, even as his overall poll numbers drop precipitously. Their cheers only grow louder as this degraded and monstrous traveling rodeo moves from town to town.
GOP officials will never match Trump’s cultish magnetism or his shameless amorality. As reprehensible as Paul Ryan’s public record has been, at least he understands the need to pass a continuing resolution. In contrast, Trump’s vapidity, aggression, and total apathy to truth or decency are boundless and exactly the attributes a strong majority of Republicans are looking for. The fault, dear Speaker, is not with Trump, but with your voters.