While the past few days have felt unprecedented in almost all respects, they’ve been familiar in at least one way: President Trump has once again done something widely viewed as outrageous. In this case, his administration had law enforcement officials clear a path for Trump to visit a nearby church, leading to protesters being tear gassed outside the White House.
And, as has often been the case when Trump draws criticism, many GOP senators have evaded questions about the violence and Trump’s role in it. “I don’t have any reaction to it. I haven’t seen footage.” “I didn’t follow, I’m sorry.” And even, “He has moments. But I mean, as you know, it lasts generally as long as the next tweet.”
Yet maybe this time is a little different. Even before the protesters were driven away from the White House, we’d begun to hear a number of strong condemnations of both Trump and how he was handling the protests across the country — some from familiar corners and others from more surprising sources, like military leaders.
On the usual suspects list there’s Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Lisa Murkowski (although Murkowski avoided saying much about the protests specifically, she did say she is “struggling” with whether to vote for Trump in 2020). But some current and former members of the president’s inner circle have also criticized him. Most notably, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned in protest in December 2018, issued a scathing rebuke of Trump’s actions on Wednesday night, writing, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.” (He also said, “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our values as people and our values as a nation.”) Current Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has also objected to using active-duty troops to respond to mostly peaceful protests.
Former President George W. Bush also weighed in on the side of the protesters, writing, “The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America.” Bush didn’t name Trump directly, but it’s still a telling rebuke from a former president of the same political party.
This is one of those rare moments of uncertainty when it’s possible that the wall of Republican support sheltering Trump finally crumbles. It is still unlikely to happen, but as I’ve written before, if it does happen, it will happen suddenly.
Political science helps us understand why this is the case. In my previous article, I cited political scientist Timur Kuran’s classic work, “Private Truth, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification,” to help explain why:
[Kuran] argues that political regimes can persist despite being unpopular, which is why a government overthrow, when it does come, can often seem so sudden.
Consider the Arab Spring, which began with one Tunisian vendor, who protested being mistreated by government officials by setting himself on fire. His death triggered a series of events, and a month later, the long-unpopular authoritarian Tunisian president fled the country after more than 23 years in power. A few weeks later, protesters in Egypt ousted their own long-serving authoritarian leader. What looked like ironclad power collapsed in a matter of weeks. Why?
Kuran argues in his book that protests need a critical mass of supporters in order to force change. The logic is that there’s safety in numbers, so if multiple citizens rise up in protest of a regime, it signals that it’s OK to protest — which can cause decades-old regimes to collapse all at once.
Of course, so far the criticism against Trump has mostly come from retired generals or members of Congress who already had a history of publicly chastising the president. But as conflict escalates over the protests, more and more elected Republicans may start to speak up.
After all, Trump’s continued unpopularity threatens to weigh down Republicans’ chances of holding on to the Senate or taking back the House, and head-to-head polling shows Biden holds a steady lead against Trump in the general election. Is it possible, then, that Republican leaders might privately be wondering if they’d be better off with somebody else on the ticket in November? With unemployment at historic levels, protests spreading and the coronavirus pandemic lingering, Trump faces an increasingly difficult path to reelection.
Most likely, Senate and House Republicans will eventually find a way to defend Trump’s actions, as they have done before (remember the impeachment trial?). Trump may not be perfect, they may say, but the Democrats are much worse. This is the prevailing rationalization of our zero-sum politics.
But in moments like this, when nobody knows exactly what to say or do, a few unlikely public critiques of Trump could have a surprising cascade effect. And if the president continues to transgress widely-shared democratic values — putting congressional Republicans in an increasingly difficult electoral position — we may yet see a consequential crack in the Republican Party.
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