Donald Trump has never been much for encouraging social distancing. He might end up getting political distancing as a result.
This week, five senators announced that they will skip the Republican National Convention in August. A Republican governor up for reelection said he wouldn’t attend a Trump rally in his state. And Senator Lindsey Graham disagreed publicly with Trump for what his home-state newspaper reckoned was the fifth time in three weeks.
These are unusual, though not unprecedented, cases of Republican elected officials creating space between themselves and the president, and each case has situation-specific dynamics. The coronavirus pandemic creates plausible deniability about skipping conventions and rallies.
But these moves also all come in the context of widespread doomsaying about Trump’s chances in November. The president is not out but he is down, and suddenly Republicans seem to be contemplating a potential future in which he doesn’t hold sway. The officials in question either have really good reasons for why they don’t have to care about what effect Trump might have on them or have equally good reasons for why they do. We’re still far from widespread GOP abandonment of the president—but if that does happen, this is how one might expect it to begin: with the most bulletproof and most endangered politicians at the vanguard.
Of course, we’ve been here before. In 2016, many Republican leaders (elected, appointed, and self-appointed) opposed Trump’s candidacy all along. Many of those who endorsed him after he clinched the nomination then broke with him again in October, after a tape emerged in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. The moral calculus aside, the political calculus was clear: Trump had looked likely to lose even before the Access Hollywood tape, and now it was a sure thing. Most prominently, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he wouldn’t defend Trump and encouraged GOP office seekers to focus on their own elections, basically conceding that Trump would lose.
Except: He didn’t. Trump went on to win the election a month later, and in office he proved to be swift in retribution for Republicans who crossed him. The result was that while GOP officials—even his own Cabinet members—were willing to insult and deplore the president in private, they stayed in line publicly.
On occasion, Trump-aligned Republicans did criticize the president: After a white-supremacist march turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump delivered a both-sides condemnation, some elected officials upbraided him. They were aghast again after Trump’s sycophantic summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
But in each case, they kept their criticism narrow and brief, lest they incur Trump’s wrath. If you crossed Trump, he’d make your political life hell. He might hound you into retirement; he might encourage a primary challenger and campaign for that person. Ryan was one of many Republicans to simply retire. By the time of Trump’s impeachment, Republicans in Congress had their backpedaling skills perfected. They laid out red lines for what might have been unacceptable behavior toward Ukraine, then swiftly erased them when it became clear that Trump had crossed them. In the end, no House Republicans voted to impeach, and among Senate Republicans, only Mitt Romney voted to convict, on a single count.
Trump’s survival of the impeachment, despite the damning evidence, was the high-water mark of his invincibility. Then came the coronavirus, an economic collapse, and especially protests against police violence and racism, a trifecta of mishandled crises. Suddenly, the president seems on a path to defeat, an impression that has taken hold in Washington circles. “Republican strategists we’ve spoken with this week think Trump is close to the point of no return,” wrote Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. “A couple of others wondered if Trump had reached his ‘Katrina’ moment: a permanent loss of trust and faith of the majority of voters.”
Now there are signs of tentative breaks with Trump by Republican officeholders, although in each case they can cite mitigating factors or maintain plausible deniability. Consider the five senators skipping the RNC in Jacksonville, Florida. There’s widespread belief that holding a big in-person convention is a bad idea for public-health reasons. Three of the senators who are skipping are at high risk of illness from COVID-19 due to age: Chuck Grassley (86), Lamar Alexander (80), and Romney (73). Susan Collins says she never attends national conventions in years when she’s running.
But each of these senators has other reasons for why they might not bother. Most are relative moderates, and not especially Trumpy in ideology. Romney and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have both publicly broken with Trump in recent months. (Alexander gently chastised Trump during the impeachment trial as well.) Moreover, none of them needs Trump’s help, and none of them needs fear him. Romney and Murkowski are themselves all but indestructible in their home states, and neither faces reelection for two years. Grassley is probably similarly solid, should he choose to run again in two years. Alexander is already retiring.
Collins is a different story: She’s in the political fight of her life against the Democrat Sara Gideon, and the danger to her is that she’s too closely aligned with Trump for Maine voters—so keeping him at arm’s length has gone from being the liability it used to be for most Republicans to being a must for her. (The problem for Collins is that as politics has become more and more nationalized, it has become correspondingly difficult for moderate members of Congress to separate themselves from presidents of their own party.)
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Governor Chris Sununu announced that he wouldn’t attend a rally on Saturday in Portsmouth, though he’ll greet Trump on arrival to the state. He, too, blamed the coronavirus.
“I will not be in the crowd of thousands of people, I’m not going to put myself in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people, if that’s your question specifically,” he told CNN. “I try to—unfortunately, you know, I have to be extra cautious as the governor, I try to be extra cautious for myself, my family.”
This is an implicit rebuke of Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus, if a timid one. But not long ago, it would have seemed absurd for any sitting Republican governor to avoid a rally with Trump—especially a governor up for reelection. But Sununu, like the senators, probably just doesn’t need to worry about Trump right now. Polling on the ground is sparse, but Sununu seems to have a safe lead going into November. (One reason is public approval of his handling of COVID-19.)
Graham makes for the most interesting case, and also the most ambiguous. As I reported yesterday, he criticized Trump for attacking NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate battle flag from races and defended the Black driver Bubba Wallace. The State notes an emerging pattern of clear, though limited, disagreements:
Since June 20, Graham has blocked a Trump U.S. attorney nominee, criticized Trump’s decision to put a temporary freeze on visas for foreign workers, split with the president about face masks during the coronavirus pandemic and pressed the administration for information about alleged Russian bounties on American soldiers.
The South Carolinian was one of Trump’s most outspoken critics during the 2016 GOP primary, in which he was abortively a candidate. But after Trump took office, Graham became one of his most reliably obsequious defenders. Many columns of ink and pixels were devoted to contemplating why. One theory, pushed by Graham himself, was that cozying up to the president made it easier for him to criticize Trump and push him on pet issues, which Graham has, on occasion, done—especially on military policy in the Middle East.
Another theory was that Graham was just being cravenly political, and knew that getting crosswise with the president would be perilous in deep-red South Carolina. But now the senator has won the GOP nomination and is headed to a general election against the Democrat Jaime Harrison. Graham is still favored, but the race should be his toughest in some time, and he may benefit from moderating his image. The election analyst Dave Wasserman tweeted, “When even Lindsey Graham starts repudiating Trump, you know it’s … oh wait, he just made it through his primary and was willing to say anything to survive all along [because] he doesn’t have a life outside of being a senator. This isn’t hard, folks.”
There’s no need to choose between theories, though; both may well be true. The relevant fact is that Graham has decided it’s safe to create some distance, as have some of his colleagues. It’s all but impossible that there will be anything like a repeat of the turn against Trump in October 2016 this time around, and whether this proves to be the first augurs of broader defections or just a few isolated actions won’t be clear for some time. But Republican elected officials can see all the same polls everyone else can, plus some more, and they’re once again calculating that standing with Trump could cost them more than standing apart.