According to Jonathan Martin, Republican leaders who don’t support Trump’s reelection have chosen one of three different paths.
- State publicly that they won’t vote for him and plan to vote for Biden (Colin Powell and Carly Fiorina).
- State publicly that they won’t vote for him, but won’t vote for Biden (Mitt Romney and John Bolton).
- Stay silent (George W. Bush, Paul Ryan, and John Boehner).
There’s one thing that all of those Republicans except Romney have in common: none of them currently hold elective office. What is even more interesting is what Martin heard about those who do.
“I’ve had five conversations with senators who tell me they are really struggling with supporting Trump,” said [Democratic Senator Chris] Coons, who declined to give names.
Indeed, one Republican senator, who is publicly supporting the president, said in an interview that he might prefer a Biden victory if the G.O.P. managed to preserve its Senate majority. This lawmaker, like a number of Republicans, is uneasy with Mr. Trump’s behavior and weary from the near-weekly barrage of questions from reporters about the latest presidential eruption.
As former Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a moderate Democrat who was friends with a number of her former Republican colleagues, put it: “It’s easier to count the ones who are definitely voting for Trump.”
That demonstrates the kind of political cowardice that has plagued Republicans ever since Trump was elected. But in talking to GOP campaign consultants, Tim Miller explains the dilemma faced by those up for reelection in 2020, like Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
[R]ather than addressing this by creating some strategic separation from Trump to solidify the historically conservative Dallas and Houston suburbs where Trump is bleeding out, Cornyn has become a Mr. Trump fan girl, echoing his virus denial and defending the attack on nonviolent protestors in Lafayette Square.
Why? According to one: “You have 25% of the state is rural and Trump gets like Saddam Hussein level numbers here. 87% in 25% of the state… Cornyn gets 69. And so Cornyn can’t find a place to break from because he could really put that in jeopardy.”
And thus the polarizing nature of Trump makes it impossible for Cornyn to make a move that helps him in the swingy suburbs without risking the floor falling out from under him in West Texas.
That is why I find the number of Republican groups forming to defeat Trump extremely significant. The ranks include the Lincoln Project, Right Side PAC, 43 Alumni for Biden, and Republican Voters Against Trump. The proliferation of these groups strikes me as unprecedented in modern political history, so it deserves our attention. Here is something Republican strategist John Weaver said about the goal of the Lincoln Project.
“Republicans are hierarchical,” Weaver said. “So what’s not getting a lot of attention right now is the structure we are building — the permission ramp for Republicans so that they will have some comfort that they are not alone in doing the right thing.”
The fact that Republicans are hierarchical is an astute observation. But that’s not the only reason why building a permission ramp is important. As Andrew Levison wrote, conservatives have actually built a three-level ideological cocoon that these kinds of efforts could puncture. The first level is a national media structure headlined by Fox News. Behind that are local news sources such as Sinclair TV stations and talk radio. A permission ramp is more likely to affect the third level, which Levison describes as the most significant.
Finally, and most importantly, it is the network of personal relationships between neighbors and friends that works to validate and confirm the broader messages. Casual conversations with friends, Facebook messages and e-mails from relatives, and jokes passed among co-workers all reinforce the sense that Democrats are the “other” and lead people who once supported Democrats to mute their views, creating what sociologists call a “spiral of silence.” The result makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.
This last, most intimate level of influence is the most important because it validates and provides the “proof” that what the conservative national and local media are saying is actually right. In this environment, political life ceases to be a debate or dialog between candidates or parties. Instead people come to accept that you would have to be completely out of your mind to ever vote for a Democrat.
As an example of how to puncture that “spiral of silence,” this is the kind of video from Republican Voters Against Trump that might break through to some white evangelical Christians—even in Texas.
Notice how Tommy says that he reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016 because the “at least he’s not Hillary Clinton” rallying cry was strong in his part of the country. That is a perfect example of how the “spiral of silence” works. Now Tommy is part of building a permission structure to give others an option that he didn’t take advantage of four years ago.
It is a fact that there are some Trump supporters who will hang on until the bitter end. But the reason a possible landslide for Biden is even being discussed is that there are Republicans out there who are beginning to see that “dark path” that Tommy says Trump’s reelection would take us down. The seeds of doubt are being planted.