One of the enduring mysteries of this most unusual of campaign seasons is why Trump’s precarious reëlection bid has not affected his standing with the Republican politicians who will be on the ballot alongside him. In the past, a historically unpopular President plummeting in the polls would have caused a slew of panicking pols to distance themselves. In July of 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s popularity sank into the low twenties and he hovered just under forty per cent in the polls in his race against Ronald Reagan, Carter even gave a speech in which he volunteered to stay away from Democratic members’ districts if they thought that his campaigning for them would hurt their chances. It didn’t work, of course, and when Carter was defeated by Reagan his party lost twenty-nine seats in the House and control of the Senate.
But the vast majority of Republicans this time are not abandoning Trump; some are even choosing to double down on their embrace of the President, a political choice that speaks loudly to the current moment. Part of it is that Trump is an unusually vengeful politician, one who is obsessed with loyalty and who does not hesitate to go after members of his party who cross him. On Tuesday night, Trump and his inner circle crowed when his former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was soundly defeated in a Republican primary in Alabama, a humiliating end to his bid to win back the Senate seat that he gave up to serve in Trump’s Cabinet. Sessions, who committed the unpardonable sin—to Trump—of recusing himself from the Russia investigation, had been the first senator to endorse Trump, back in 2016. Even after being fired by the President, Sessions continued to publicly suck up to Trump during his comeback bid. A few weeks ago, when Trump’s mid-pandemic return to the campaign trail, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, bombed, Sessions blithely praised the President for his “masterful” performance and “winning message.” But that was not enough for Trump, who endorsed Sessions’s opponent and bad-mouthed his former A.G. as “a disaster who let us all down.” After the vote, Trump exulted in Sessions’s defeat. So did Trump’s close adviser Stephen Miller, the young immigration hawk who owes his career to Sessions. Asked on Wednesday about Sessions’s loss, as he strolled across the White House driveway, Miller called it a “great victory for the country, a great victory for the President.”
Fear alone, however, does not explain what’s going on with Republicans. Not every state is Alabama, where Trump will win in November no matter what. Trump has been sagging even in reliably red states, such as Georgia and Texas—a Democratic Presidential candidate has not won the latter state since Carter, in 1976—where surveys now show Biden more or less even with Trump. The Dallas Morning News wrote the other day that “Trump represents a bigger threat to fellow Republicans than any GOP nominee in forty-four years.” As coronavirus cases spike in Texas, the crucial suburban voters in Dallas and Houston, who have long been the G.O.P.’s bedrock in the state, appear to be souring on the President. Yet Senator John Cornyn, a mild-mannered Republican-establishment type never previously seen as a Trumpite, has chosen to respond to his increasingly uphill reëlection challenge in Texas by becoming one of the President’s more ardent public defenders. He’s tweeting more. He’s trolling. He told Texans to go out and drink some Corona beer and not to panic about the disease. Democrats are now calling him Mini-Don. There are plenty of other Republican officeholders like him.
The best, or at least most vivid, explanation for this phenomenon that I’ve seen is a recent piece in Rolling Stone by the Republican strategist Tim Miller, an adviser to Jeb Bush’s doomed 2016 Presidential campaign who became a fervent Never Trumper. Miller asked nine G.O.P.-consultant friends who are still welcome in the Party why the “dumpster fire” that is the Trump 2020 campaign has not caused their Republican candidates to abandon the President. “There are two options, you can be on this hell ship, or you can be in the water drowning,” one told Miller. Miller’s report from the U.S.S. Hellship suggests that the trapped sailors are well aware of how badly Trump is faring but are unable to bail out—especially in competitive elections, where the Party can ill afford to lose any Republican votes. In rural Texas, one of Miller’s informants pointed out, “Trump gets like Saddam Hussein level numbers here.” Cornyn desperately needs those Trump superfans in order to win statewide. Loyalty to Trump among such voters now outweighs any policy position, which means that catering to them requires Cornyn to strike a hard pro-Trump line, even if it further alienates the suburban moderates now wavering on the President. “No dissent is tolerated,” a consultant in another state told Miller. And, besides, another strategist told him, the election is all about Trump—there’s no use pretending otherwise. Their observations are strikingly similar to a conversation that I had last month with a veteran Republican pollster, whose clients are running in competitive states. I asked him whether, given the bad and worsening poll numbers, we might soon see his candidates running away from the President. “I don’t think so,” he said, citing the Trump Twitter curse. “He stirs up his base all the time, so you can’t take a position to reach out to the independents who have trouble with his persona, because the Republican Trump base will turn on you in a second.” And so the Hellship sails on.
The real issue is that Republicans know full well that Justin Amash, Jeff Sessions, and Richard Burr were all publicly executed from a political standpoint. Amash was run out of the party and now faces obliteration. Sessions was put out to pasture like a broken racehorse as I mentioned earlier this week. And Richard Burr is most likely headed for prison and expulsion from the Senate, mysteriously the only person to be caught in the FBI's investigation of insider COVID-19 trading.
Trump doesn't just get revenge. He breaks legs and breaks lives. He can instantly turn 90% of Republican voters against anyone in the party with a day of tweets, and everyone in the GOP knows it. They are afraid of him because all of them are cowards.
But they'd rather be live cowards than dead heroes.