With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg having been so quickly followed by Republicans’ gleeful and immediate abuse of power politics to replace her, there has been a renewed effort to explain why the political party that Trump took over with great hostility only four years ago is now so completely in the tank for the pathological liar who continually makes them look ridiculous.
The most popular theory continues to be that this was, in the words of MSNBC’s evening pundit Chris Hayes two nights ago, a “Devil’s Bargain.” Trump, in this telling, is an unpleasant means to an end; if Republicans can put up with his depredations, then he will take them to the promised land by giving them highly regressive tax cuts and a load of hyper-conservative judges.
It certainly is a plausible theory. After all, the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan onward has been driven by what are known as “movement conservatives,” but that movement actually papers over a lot of tension among its various power centers (libertarians versus Christian fundamentalists, for example). The rigid discipline that the party nonetheless exhibits is built around the fact that all of those groups want to seat extremely conservative judges and Supreme Court justices. And even though top-loaded tax cuts and attacks on the environment, workers, and consumers are not good for most Republican voters (or almost anyone else), those goals have become central to nearly every Republicans’ commitments on a visceral level.
Thus, one can hardly blame puzzled observers for landing on something like this: “Trump undermines practically everything that Republicans have said that they care about, but they still back him unconditionally; so it must be that he is giving them the most important things that they all want.”
Catherine Rampell, an op-ed writer for The Washington Post, who made her bones writing about economic issues from a neoliberal (that is, a very establishment and centrist) perspective, embraced this incorrect theory in what was in fact a quite compelling column earlier this week. Here is one particularly clear version of her thesis:
The prospect of another Supreme Court appointment was precisely how Republican senators assuaged their consciences these past four years. Judges (and tax cuts) were not merely the justification but their ultimate reward. They’re why these quisling lawmakers held their noses and accepted so much bad, sometimes criminal, behavior from this administration.
The balance of Rampell’s column is devoted to listing all of the ways in which Republicans have sold their collective souls: “The lure of packing the bench with conservative justices is presumably why Republican officials abandoned their putative commitments to limited government and free markets,” to free trade, and so on. It is an impressive summation of all that Republicans have done willingly over the past four years that contradicts everything that they used to claim to hold dear.
Quid: Support for Trump, no matter how much he violates putative Republican principles. Quo: Judges and tax cuts for the rich. As I said, it is a plausible explanation, which I will call the slime-for-judges theory.
But that theory is wrong. Or, if the theory actually does explain why Republicans so completely support Trump even in the face of everything that he has done, that would tell us that these Republicans are not very smart, because there has long been an obvious, better way to get what they want.
The evidence instead leaves only one possible conclusion. Republicans simply like what Trump is, what he does, and the depths of bigoted authoritarianism to which he would take this country. Moreover, they never cared about the other stuff. They are not tolerating a repellent quid in order to get a delightful quo. It is win-win for them all the way down.
Or, to put the point more vividly, the popular explanation of Trumpian fervor imagines that Republicans are saying, “Well, I’ll somehow get myself to put up with the icky stuff if I must.” But what if they like the icky stuff?
The Movement Conservative Case for Trump in late 2016
The only defensible version of the slime-for-judges theory is actually now ancient history. As Hayes’s piece explains, when Republicans were originally confronted with Trump’s assault on their party in late 2015 and early 2016, party leaders universally expressed horror and revulsion. They knew exactly what he was and is (a liar, a cheat, a narcissist), and they said so unreservedly.
But they chose not to bolt and instead fell in behind the man who had hijacked their nominating process. The idea was that Republicans simply could not stomach the idea of Hillary Clinton ever becoming President, so they convinced themselves that tolerating Trump’s slime in exchange for installing an army of conservative judges and justices (and cutting taxes for the rich) was reason enough to stick with Trump.
As I argued here on Verdict act the time, however, that was simply not the only choice. Republican leaders could have announced at any time—certainly in October 2016 after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape upended everything, but also at any time before that—that they were disgusted by their accidental nominee’s unending horrors, so the party leadership had decided to endorse Clinton as a unity ticket.
Why would they do that? Among other things, they would have immediately neutered any possibility of Clinton following a liberal path on any issue (including judges). On every question, they could have called on Clinton to remember that they helped put her in office, piously claiming that she owed them and the country the gift of bipartisanship. They might not have gotten Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court, but they certainly could have negotiated rightward from the (already completely centrist) nominee Merrick Garland.
Moreover, this was all in the context of Republicans holding majorities in both the House and the Senate. They could have simultaneously done everything within their power to put only unpalatable bills in front of President Clinton, all the while looking to build up their majorities in the 2018 midterms (rather than losing the House in a landslide under Trump).
It was not to be. And maybe, as a realistic matter, it was too much to expect Republicans to take even a slightly longer-term view than simply winning the election that they faced at the time. So, if the slime-for-judges argument ever made sense, it was in late October 2016, when Republicans might have thought that they could control Trump’s worst impulses while still getting the judicial picks, regressive tax cuts, and deregulatory orgy that they so fervently desired.
Again, however, simply because we might understand how Republican leaders made that choice, that does not mean that it was smart, even from the most crassly partisan perspective. They could have turned Clinton into an ineffectual figurehead (and probably even impeached her, for something or another), built up their governing majorities, and been in a dominant position for generations to come, all without having to deal with Trump.
The Slime-for-Judges Case Is So 2016
But if the issue was that Republicans could not possibly imagine themselves living in a world in which Hillary Clinton was the President, the original quid pro quo of tolerating Trumpian slime in order to get the goodies that Republicans desired cannot possibly explain why they are still backing Trump today.
This is, in fact, so obvious that I must have written it dozens of times in the past few years: Mike Pence would be president today if Trump had been removed from office, and he would give Republicans everything they want and more. Why trade slime for judges when you can get the judges for free?
When Rampell says that Republicans will someday have to ask themselves, “Was it worth it?” she should have focused on the fact that the second “it” in that sentence was not merely putting Trump in office but keeping him there. And keeping him there provides no net benefits to Republicans under the slime-for-judges (and pro-rich tax cuts and deregulation) theory.
Moreover, Republicans could have given themselves a much better chance to win the 2020 presidential election without (much) cheating, either by nominating Pence or by choosing someone else as their nominee in primaries earlier this year. The prominent Republicans who have backed Joe Biden this year because of Trump’s awfulness would have had no reason to do so if the nominee were Ted Cruz or Tom Cotton (as dangerous as those two men are).
Now, Republicans have put themselves in a position where they have only one route to keeping power, and that is to help Trump destroy democracy itself. I have been predicting for years that Trump would refuse to accept losing this year and that Republicans would have every reason to go along with the internal coup, and these last few months have only made it more obvious that this is so.
From 2017 through 2020, then, the argument that it is necessary to keep Trump in power for Republicans to get what they want has been complete nonsense. As I noted above, it is surely possible that some Republicans are simply so daft that they do not understand that they do not need Trump anymore, but for those who are not stupid, we then have to ask: Why did they not do something to stop him before now, given that they had nothing to lose regarding judges or economic policies?
“When Someone Shows You Who They Are, Believe Them the First Time”
To amend (with great respect) Maya Angelou’s famous admonition, if you did not believe people the first time that they showed you who they are, you still have a chance to believe them every subsequent time that they remind you.
The fundamental premise of the slime-for-judges theory is simply no longer plausible. That theory presumes that the people who support Trump do so only provisionally and transactionally, accepting bad things because the good things that they receive in return are so, so good.
Shortly after I penned my Verdict column in 2016 suggesting that Republican leaders could gain strategically by endorsing Clinton, I wrote a column titled: “Trump Throws Off the Last Pretense That His Campaign Is Not About Bigotry.” There, I argued that even if some of Trump’s supporters justified their embrace of a fake populist by saying that they were hurting economically, Trump himself had made it abundantly clear that he himself is an unashamed bigot.
Four years later, that fact has gone from obvious to trite. Trump confirms his bigotry so often that news sources barely even remember to mention it when a new example arises. I suppose that it is a good thing that Republicans (and even Trump himself) still think it necessary to wax indignant about the idea that they are racists, but Trump has left little doubt as to where he stands. (One factoid among countless others: Even in a world where NASCAR banned the Confederate battle flag, Trump defends it and voices support for the slavery-defending traitors who carried out a treasonous armed rebellion against the United States.)
Beyond the bigotry—or, more accurately, as part of it—there is Trump’s embrace of Republicans’ longstanding efforts to disenfranchise people who might vote for Democrats. Attacking the Postal Service, disparaging mail-in voting, and everything else that Trump does serves the Republicans’ decades-long effort to continue their minority rule.
Indeed, Trump’s shamelessness is affirmatively useful to Republicans, because they are frankly not as able as he is to come up with new ways to distort the political process. That is not to say that Republicans are slouches in that regard—stealing a Supreme Court seat required a breathtaking leap of malevolent imagination, after all—but Trump’s lifetime of having been enabled to treat the rules as a joke allows his id to rage free. As he knocks down barriers, Republicans gleefully run in behind him.
If there is a quid pro quo for Republicans, then, the very best that could be said is that some number of them are not turned on by Trump’s racism but are willing to trade that for absolute power. If that is the defense, however, then it means that they are committed to remaining in power to continue a policy regime that harms minorities in great numbers (the disproportionate death rates from COVID-19 within minority communities in the U.S. being only the most prominent current example). It is, at best, racism at one degree of remove.
Republicans could have gotten their judges and their economic policies without continuing to support Trump (or even supporting him in the first place). Their continued support of him means that they either like his bigotry in the first instance or they want to permanently lock in their long-term policy agenda, which just so happens to have racist impacts in politics, economics, health, and every other area of life.
And if they must help Trump steal an election and end constitutional democracy as we have known it to get what they want, Republicans seem not only untroubled by that but actually eager to do so. This is not a reluctant quid pro quo. This is a hateful mutual admiration society.