Following Senator Romney’s completely anodyne and unobjectionable analysis of the first biennium of the Trump administration, our president demonstrated once again that he is an adult-sized playground bully, a Rose Garden Cartman dishing out sick burns but unable to countenance even the most civil criticism.
Romney’s op-ed offered straightforward plaudits to Trump for tax and criminal justice reform and appointments to the judiciary while critiquing him for abandoning our allies abroad, bloating the federal budget, and failing to elevate our national discourse with “comity and mutual respect.” Wow—who let the dog out?! Comity and respect, some real tough stuff there!
And yet, despite the tepidness of this critique the MAGA minions and assorted throne sniffers rushed into the breach to defend the snowflake-in-chief. Rand Paul set a land-speed record for organizing a press conference call, where the man who once called Trump a “delusional narcissist and orange-faced windbag” now absurdly accuses Romney of being “petty” and “virtue signaling.” David Perdue took to the pages of the Washington Post for the first time since June 2016 to call Romney’s mild reprobration of an obvious reprobate “character assassination.”
Even though Romney didn’t suggest anything about a presidential primary, the Trump campaign team responded by going to Politico to lay out their plan to stamp out any intra party challenge in 2020 and the South Carolina GOP floated the idea of simply scrapping their primary altogether.
This behavior should worry anyone hoping for a healthy Trump presidency. Protecting Trump from criticism only serves to enable his worst instincts and incentivize behavior that is going to make his political position— already a net -11.5 in the RealClear Politics job approval average—even worse.
As far as the resentment that’s been directed toward Romney—if there is anyone who understands the benefits of an outsider using his public perch to try to influence the president, it should be Trump himself. Trump’s political persona was built through cavalier and wanton criticism of literally everyone in public life this side of his friend Vladimir. From Ronald Reagan in the ’80s (Trump said he “couldn’t deliver the goods”) to George W. Bush (who should be impeached) to President Obama (born in Kenya, probably) Trump has been unrelenting in his attacks on America’s leaders.
The charitable interpretation of these broadsides was that Trump was trying to get the leaders to change. And as he himself has noted: It worked. Were it not for Trump, the first black president would not have had to produce a certificate demonstrating that his birthplace was in fact America. Bravissimo.
When more constructive, intra-party critiques have proven themselves genuinely helpful for past presidents. It was Bill Kristol and David Frum—today two of the conservatives most willing to criticize Trump—who were, in 2005, two of the conservatives most willing to criticize George W. Bush for his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Were it not for the backlash they led, the very-questionably conservative Miers likely would have been seated on the court and there would be no Justice Samuel Alito.
Funnily enough, many of those who have since become the current president’s resident Baghdad Bobs, at the time recognized the value of this outside pressure. Laura Ingraham told the Washington Post at the time that without conservative resistance, Miers “would have carried the day.”
(It’s clear in hindsight that the Bush administration could have benefited from even more pushback from within the party in other areas as well – both on the front-end of the War in Iraq and in challenging the spending increases that were among the prompts for the Tea Party backlash in 2010.)
While Trump may not like being criticized— he’s more reactive to it than any politician in memory. After weeks of getting thumped by Republican legislators over his haphazard announcement that troops were returning immediately from Syria, Trump backtracked in favor of a more considered approach on Monday. Does anyone think this modest improvement in policy outcome would have happened were it not for brushback from other Republicans? Even Trump’s allies and staffers have acknowledged that he’s best managed by hearing feedback on his favored cable programs, because he is so responsive to the feedback.
Contrary to the claims of Trump partisans, these types of challenges to the president, be they substantive ones from sitting legislators, political ones from potential primary opponents, or rhetorical ones from the conservative media can only strengthen the party and, in the end, benefit an erratic president.
Shouting down any constructive criticisms of the president and trying to rig the game to protect him doesn’t make any sense unless you’re a Trump dead-ender who’s just there to defend him no matter how ugly things get. But at that point, forget being an ideologue—you’re not even a partisan. You’re just a red-pilled and hatted member of the Trump personality cult.
Because take a look at Trump’s popular trajectory (measured by polls and elections) and ask yourself this: Does this look like a movement marching from triumph to triumph? Trump needs an alternative path to winning back voters who have abandoned him. And potential pathways are what intra-party criticisms aim to create.
So it’s time for Republicans who have cast their lot with Trump to buck up. There is no need to race to the nearest Fox News studio or change the party rules should another Republican disrespect the president’s authority. If Trump is as tough as he likes to claim to be he can face a lukewarm op-ed or an uphill primary challenge without fear of melting.