How Do Political Parties Oppose Their Own Presidents?

Two historians look for precedents for Republican opposition to Trump.

Senator Jeff Flake
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Julian Zelizer: Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, one of the most conservative members of the GOP, has published a new book, along with a Politico article, in which he takes on his own party for saying so little about the dysfunction in President Trump’s Oval Office. “To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial,” he writes. Flake’s comments are one of a number of signs in the past few weeks that there is serious unrest within the Republican Party about the president.

If Flake’s article portends the direction of things to come, the next obvious question is what could Republicans on Capitol Hill actually do about the situation that they now face? What options are on the table for a party in power in Congress?

The most obvious, and threatening, answer is that at some point Republicans could eventually join in an impeachment process should the findings of the congressional investigations or Special Counsel Robert Mueller be devastating enough to do so. Some might also consider this step if the president decides to undertake a dramatic measure like removing Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his job so that he can go after Mueller.

Short of impeachment, Republicans could easily ratchet up the intensity of the congressional investigations that are currently taking place or launch new ones. Until now, other than a few moments such as when former FBI Director James Comey appeared before Congress, Republicans have been reluctant to recreate the kind of public hearings that the nation witnessed with Watergate or Iran-Contra, when legislators brought key figures from the administration in front of the cameras and asked hard-hitting questions about wrongdoing in the White House. If Republicans become frustrated enough, they could easily change the tenor of the current investigations, with regards to Russia and other issues like conflict of interest, tying the administration up into knots by forcing President Trump and his team to spend most of their time defending themselves.

Another tool that Republicans have is to ignore the president on his legislative priorities, whatever those might be. In recent days, we have seen how Senate Republicans are saying that they will ignore Trump’s recent tweetstorm mocking them for walking away from repealing the Affordable Care Act and instead focus their attention on potentially more rewarding issues like tax cuts. On Russia, the Republican Congress passed a strong sanctions package that severely constrains the president from taking any unilateral action if he chooses a different direction. This kind of independent legislating could easily continue and become the path forward for the GOP. They will either send him bills that he won’t sign or pressure him into accepting whatever they send his way. Part of their decision will depend on the outcome of the 2018 midterms when they can take the temperature of how all of this Trump tumult is impacting the Republican brand name.

Republicans like Flake also have the power to make noise in the media, which is not insignificant since this is the arena through which we conduct many of our political debates. At a moment as tense as the one we are currently in, any pointed remarks by Republicans, like Flake who has been remarkably loyal to the GOP and who has generally voted favorably on the president’s proposals, will generate intense interest and become part of the 24-hour breaking news conservation (or as my colleague Mickey likes to call them, the “chattering class”). Although Trump likes to dismiss comments in the media as “fake news,” it’s become clear that what is said on the public airwaves really does consume much of his attention. Who knows, we might even see Republicans start going on Fox & Friends and speaking poorly of the president.

Republicans might also start thinking about a primary challenge in 2020, and this is perhaps behind Flake’s book promotion. Without any question, we are in the territory that we saw in 1968 when Senators Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy took on Lyndon Johnson; or in 1980 when Senator Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the nomination; or in 1992 when Patrick Buchanan took on President George H.W. Bush, who he derided as “King George” in his own version of conservative populism. Congress can offer a platform for potential challengers to make their case to the public. Historically, these challenges against an incumbent president don’t work, but they might this time given Trump’s fragile political standing and his chaotic trajectory.

Republicans have many tools on the table if they want to start taking a more adversarial stance toward Trump. Although the president is very imperial these days, the truth is that history shows that Congress still matters and that when a party becomes unhappy with its own leader there are still many options on the table if they decide to go after the commander-in-chief. The real question is not whether Republicans can do something about Trump—but whether they have the will or the courage to do so.

Morton Keller: Julian quite understandably discusses possible GOP reaction against Trump in the context of impeachment, investigations, opposition in Congress, or a more stoked-up media (though it is difficult to envisage the latter). If the Putin-Trump collusion hypothesis for the 2016 election turns out to be verifiable, then the Watergate analogy, which underlies this menu, is appropriate. If not, then perhaps not.

GOP displeasure with Trump preceded his election: He never really won over a majority of the party before November 2016. That opposition had as much to do with his abrasive personality as his policies.

It may be useful to extend the realm of historical analogy to another classic case study—one with a quite different result than Watergate. This was the broad array of Democratic reservations about Harry Truman that surfaced in the election of 1948. Both southern segregationists and soft-on-Communism left-liberals seized the opportunity to run separate candidates, in separate parties: Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, and Henry Wallace's Progressive Party. They had strikingly similar results: 1,169,021 popular votes for Thurmond; 1,156,103  for Wallace.

If Trump runs again in 2020, it is quite possible that he will be counted out by the media as thoroughly as was Truman in 1948 (or, for that matter, Trump in 2016). It is also possible that Democratic overconfidence will lead to a replication, of sorts, of their 1948 mistake: run the previously-defeated (1944) but familiar Thomas Dewey. Hillary Clinton, after all, lost in the electoral college, but won a popular plurality and came within a whisker of winning the necessary electoral votes. So by past political measures, she should be the probable candidate for 2020unless her party embraces the view that it was not Russian involvement but her defects, and the ideological bubble into which the Democrats had encased themselves, that were to blame for its defeat.

Truman's 1948 victory appears to have stemmed from his identification with the FDR coalition and the appeal that he gained by contrast with the personality-challenged Dewey and the ideologically-challenged Thurmond and Wallace. Republicans alienated from Trump, and Democrats thirsting for his demise, would do well to ponder the lesson of Truman 1948 as well as Nixon 1974.

Zelizer:  It is an important addition that you make, reminding us of the fact that then-candidate Trump had such soft support in the primaries from the party leaders probably makes him even more vulnerable to intra-party tensions if things continue to take a bad turn. I would add that the detrimental developments on public policy, such as the failure to move an ACA repeal bill through Congress, could end up being just as damaging to his relations with the party as the political scandals. The way that the AHCA vote materialized ended up putting many House Republican legislators in more purple districts, who took a risk and voted yes, with angry constituents and no legislation to show for it. Conservatives are mad at this signature proposal is, for the moment, dead and buried. And the way that Trump tried to manhandle many senators like Dean Heller or Lisa Murkowski won’t sit well with the upper chamber for a long time.

Your point about the Democrats is very important. We are in agreement. How the Republicans respond to the turmoil is one part of the story, which is more on my mind simply because the GOP controls Congress and a primary challenge feels very real from a John Kasich or Jeff Flake, but what the Democrats do next is vital as well. In the case of health-care reform, the Democrats played their cards pretty well. Nobody defected from the party position while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were able to prevent “Democratic obstruction” from being the main story, in contrast to Republican division and incompetence—and the fact that the party was trying to sell a bad idea.

But 1948 is a good reminder of how it is possible come election time to underestimate the incumbent president or to run the wrong candidate. (I would put former Vice President Joe Biden in the same category as Hillary Clinton for 2020.) If Republicans really start to divide, Democrats need to make sure they find a candidate from a different generation, someone who can attract a broad coalition including those pockets of Democrats-turned-Republican in states like Wisconsin, and someone who can paint Donald Trump, the ultimate “outsider,” as the establishment. Here they might want to read some history books about the 1980 election when the GOP found Ronald Reagan who was able to bring many electoral factions together and to turn President Jimmy Carter from the Georgia peanut farmer who you could trust into the prime example of why Washington didn’t work.

Keller: Julian, the extent of our agreement may perhaps be taken as a measure of how far we are from the politics of 2020. At this stage, both politicians and observers like us would be well advised to settle down to close observation of the flow of events and the public mood, and avoid assuming that the way things appear to be now is the way they are likely to be three-plus years from now.

It is, for instance, far from clear that the ACA is home free. That problems—possibly growing ones—will remain to plague the exchanges is reasonably likely. And Democratic advocacy of  “single payer” can have all kinds of unpredictable political consequences—particularly when, as far as I can tell, its impact on the 80-percent-plus of health insurance now in employer-sponsored, group, insurance-company-managed plans is quite unclear.

But this is to neglect my own advice, and to speculate on what hasn't happened yet. That isn't for historians. We have enough trouble trying to explain what already occurred.