Last month, Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair published a piece about the internal conflicts at Fox News. He quoted an anonymous Fox executive as saying that former House Speaker Paul Ryan “is embarrassed about Trump and now he has the power to do something about it” in his capacity as a newly appointed Fox News board member. This sentiment was ridiculed across the political spectrum as a sign of Ryan’s cowardice while in office.
Let’s put aside the matter of whether Ryan might have shown less than ideal principles in taking the Fox position. And let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the anonymous quote accurately captures Ryan’s feelings. What are we to make of the notion that someone who was the second- or third-most powerful politician in the country might have felt powerless to criticize the president? Or, to take this beyond Ryan, let’s put it in terms of one of the overarching political questions of the Trump era: What are the GOP members of Congress doing?
Admit it, that question has likely crossed your mind over the past few years when contemplating elected Republicans. During the GOP presidential primary in 2015 and 2016, many members of Congress criticized Donald Trump for not being a “real” Republican, for having questionable morals, and, for being generally unfit for office. Yet now President Trump is the recipient of conspicuous fawning, and of even more conspicuous silence, from many of these same congressional Republicans—even as he has continued the same behaviors as before and run roughshod over nearly every institution and policy that he has touched.
The obvious explanations: The president is formally the leader of his party and wields enormous power. The Republican base, which President Trump has consolidated among whites without college degrees and evangelicals, loves him. The president’s judicial appointments and tax legislation have made several key constituencies very happy, including evangelicals (a crucial source of votes) and one-percenters (a crucial source of cash).
But a subtler explanation may be closer to correct. It may be that these Republican members of Congress are acting according to a set of preferences and assumptions that, while potentially misguided and damaging, are logical on their own terms. And if we take some care to understand those preferences and assumptions, we may also begin to see a path forward for the post-Trump GOP—allowing for the removal of the president while these members of Congress salvage their jobs and, in the long term, their legacy and party.
What do politicians want?
To begin, it’s worth keeping in mind an axiom from Political Science 101: Sitting members of Congress have few goals in life whose importance approaches that of being reelected. Like many people in highly competitive fields, they have sacrificed a tremendous amount to get to what is usually a terminal job, one that they can potentially hold well into their 60s and 70s.
Like all elected officials, Republican members of Congress understand that their success in getting reelected is the result of a some things that they can control and some others that they cannot. The former category—things that are within their control—include what they do (voting) and what they say (to their constituents, primarily through the media). These actions and words directly influence the opinions of donors and voters.
What, then, is perceived as out of their control? What if Republican members of Congress consider themselves so completely at the mercy of public opinion that they feel politically paralyzed—as if putting any distance between themselves and the president guarantees they will soon be sprucing up their LinkedIn profiles? That sounds a lot like an ecosystem dominated by Fox News, talk radio, Donald Trump, and the GOP primary electorate. If the GOP base’s opinion of the president does not change, then Republican officeholders face a choice: Either they stay silent and vote with the president or they deviate and get primaried (in the very red states) or lose a critical component of their base (in the purple ones).
To put it another way, these GOP elected officials are price takers.
“Price taking” is a concept from economics wherein a firm or individual has no sway over the market, essentially meaning that they could “take it or leave it,” paying the market price or not. The political analogy here is that in order for these Republican members of Congress to “buy” (get) what they want (reelection), they can either pay full price (defend the president or at least stay silent about him, while voting in lockstep with him), or refuse to and not get what they want and get primaried out.
Thinking of congressional Republicans as price takers can help us understand why Paul Ryan reportedly believes that being a Fox News board member allows him to confront Trump in a way that he could not while he was in office. If, while he was House Speaker, Ryan truly believed that GOP primary voters would only respond to Fox News and talk radio and the president’s Twitter account, then any actions he took against the president could imperil his speakership—and would certainly diminish his clout among the House Republican conference, reducing his ability to maneuver politically. But as a Fox News board member, Ryan might be able to convince FNC that DJT is a losing bet, thereby influencing one of the few inputs affecting GOP voters and potentially allowing for messaging that is not 100 percent fealty to the president.
Returning to the economics analogy, in this case a price taker can go to a firm where he is no longer just a price taker—so that he can move markets.
Does this explanation absolve the former speaker of apparently appeasing an unstable White House bully while he was in office? No. But it does explain why Ryan, and other GOP elected officials who might have qualms about the president, would refuse to challenge the president openly.
Why the complaining off the record, then?
What the price-taking analogy doesn’t explain is why many of these same GOP elected officials still feel the need to trash the president anonymously. Why are GOP representatives and senators willing to criticize the president in off-the-record interviews with reporters? Doing so is not without risk—they could be exposed and attacked by the president and his supporters—and it doesn’t bring much benefit: It’s not as if non-GOP voters will give them credit for opposing the president in such a clandestine way.
It could be, though, that these members of Congress are waiting out Trump until they can rebuild the party. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, maybe winning elections is everything to these members of Congress but it’s not the only thing. Holding on to their House or Senate seats (or moving on to governorships or the presidency) may be a dominant factor in these officials’ calculations, but many of them continue to care about the policies and principles that brought them into Republican politics in the first place. Maybe some of them still worry about profligate government spending or revenue shortfalls. Maybe some still want our foreign policy to promote both U.S. interests and human rights. Maybe some of them are disgusted by the president’s statements mocking Gold Star parents, or their old colleague John McCain, or disabled persons. Maybe some of them think Donald Trump’s words and deeds go against everything they believe about how the leader of the free world should conduct himself and set a terrible precedent for future leaders.
To those members of Congress, I would ask a simple question: If you are a price taker now, what makes you think things will be any different in the future?
There is little reason to believe that the factors that have led folks like Paul Ryan to be profiles in learned helplessness will disappear when the president leaves office. Even after a Democrat enters the White House, Donald Trump—never one to gracefully walk away from the limelight—will continue to exercise outsized influence on the party. And the Fox News and talk-radio infrastructure, which will remain enormously powerful, might very well want to stick with Trumpism. After all, their business model depends intense partisanship, and Trumpism certainly stokes partisanship.
A surprising way out?
In theory, as Lee Drutman explained in a recent piece for FiveThirtyEight, one way for congressional Republicans to escape their paralysis would be to act collectively. If many GOP elected officials were to defy the president, the price to be paid—including any digital presidential retaliation—would be diluted. They would still need, however, someone to coordinate their action and serve as a leader, someone who might not be slave to the same set of incentives as the rest of them appear to be. Someone who might not need to be a price taker.
One such person could be Mitch McConnell.
On the surface, the idea that any single senator could instigate a general action among his caucus might seem ridiculous—like herding a bunch of leopards who all think they should be living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Furthermore, what evidence suggests that Senator McConnell of all people would be willing to stand up to Trump? He has shown no real inclination to oppose the president who has delivered on tax reform and judges.
Beneath the surface, however, there is evidence to suggest that not only might Senator McConnell be able to make such a drastic move, he also might be the singular politician for whom such a move might be rational based on his incentives.
Since becoming the leader of the Senate Republicans in 2007, McConnell has proven remarkably adept at maintaining unity in the caucus. His ability to impose his will on his colleagues has earned grudging respect even from Democrats. Given many Senate Republicans’ apparent private disdain for the president, all it might take for Senator McConnell to convince a number of off-cycle Republicans to join him in opposing the president would be an argument that removing Trump would improve their reelection chances in 2022 and 2024: They would be better off by acting swiftly and in unison now to put a President Pence in place.
Still, even if it were theoretically possible to organize a bloc of senators to vote after an impeachment trial to remove the president from office, why would Senator McConnell, a fierce partisan, ever agree to such a move?
One answer: He is also a forward-looking politician, and he apparently cares deeply about how he will be perceived by history. Senator McConnell recognized early on that while elections and legislation come and go, judicial appointments can last decades, and so he made them a major focus of his time as leader. Unlike, say, Lindsey Graham, who desperately wants to stay “relevant,” Mitch McConnell cares deeply about his legacy—and chafes at his legacy being linked to Trump’s. He dislikes being called “Moscow Mitch” (although he doesn’t mind being called the “grim reaper” and likes the nickname “Cocaine Mitch” well enough to sell merchandise emblazoned with it).
What will be Senator McConnell’s legacy if he continues to support Trump no matter what? He will be able to point to judicial appointments and tax reform, but he will have to share credit for those accomplishments with President Trump. And McConnell’s legacy will be loaded down with all of the baggage that comes with enabling Trump—including not only the baggage of the president’s actions and words, but also the loss of constituencies from the Republican party (such as women and suburbanites).
Moreover, it is worth remembering that, with the House of Representatives controlled by staunchly anti-Trump Democrats, Congress will be unlikely to pass any more legislation during the remaining fifteen months of this Trump term.
Now what would Mitch McConnell’s legacy be if he were to lead his fellow Republicans to vote for removing the president from office following an impeachment trial? In the short term there would of course be extreme pushback from the president and his supporters, with fire directed at McConnell more than anyone else. But Senator McConnell is very good at taking heat: He does not seem to care about being the most unpopular politician in the country.
McConnell would, however, establish a secure political legacy that is distinct from President Trump’s. He could go down in the history books as a principled guardian of the Constitution. He could help give his party a chance of holding on to the White House in 2020, since—given the president’s uniformly poor polling against almost all of the Democratic candidates, none of whom has the last name Clinton—a Trump loss seems likelier than not. And McConnell could show that the president’s bullying style and fecklessness on policy need not remain the norm for the GOP for the coming decade and beyond.
Is Senator McConnell actually likely to provide a way out for the rational cowards in his caucus? Probably not—unless the president continues to slip in the polls and stumble on policy. If Donald Trump continues to weaken, then for Mitch McConnell to convince his colleagues to act collectively against the president would be not only brave but rational.