Can Trump’s Republican Critics Find Strength in Numbers?

They don’t have to prove that they represent a majority of their party. They just have to demonstrate that the party can’t win without them.

Andrew Harnik / AP

Even after Hurricane Helsinki, Donald Trump’s Republican critics still find themselves shouting into the wind.

While more Republicans than usual criticized Trump’s dizzying news conference with Vladimir Putin earlier this week, the possibility of a sustained backlash inside the party is already dwindling. It’s splintering against the same rocks that quickly ended the uprising last summer over the president’s comments on white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia: the refusal of congressional Republicans to offer more than cursory questioning of his behavior, much less impose any consequences for it. “People are not on board yet for really taking him on,” admits Bill Kristol, the longtime conservative strategist and leading Trump critic, in an interview.

Trump’s Republican skeptics, both inside and outside of Congress, agree that GOP officials who privately rail about Trump won’t publicly challenge him, primarily because polls show he’s so popular with the party base. But that’s partly a self-fulfilling prophecy: One reason Trump is so popular with the base is because no one has made a systematic case against his presidency from a Republican perspective.

A handful of Republican elected officials, and a slightly longer roster of party strategists and intellectuals, have intermittently criticized Trump for his attacks on federal law enforcement, his racially divisive language and actions, his assaults on the Western military alliance, his trade wars, and his obsequiousness toward Putin. Often, those critiques have been eloquent and impassioned. But, judging by Trump’s towering Republican approval ratings, they have left little imprint.

If anything, these solo flights may have weakened the anti-Trump cause inside the GOP. Other elected officials view occasional Trump critics such as Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who are retiring, and Representative Mark Sanford, who lost a primary, less as an inspiration than as a warning. “The individual ad hoc attacks on Trump aren’t effective, and they are potentially counterproductive because it allows Trump to isolate the people who are doing it,” says Peter Wehner, the former director of strategic planning in the George W. Bush White House. “And if they are defeated in a primary or retire, that amplifies the perception that no one can take him on.”

There’s no easy solution to that dilemma. But history suggests the first step may be to find strength in numbers. In recent decades, other factions disaffected with their party’s direction have amplified their influence by coalescing and creating their own institutions. Probably the best-known recent example is the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which party centrists formed after Ronald Reagan routed old-style liberal Walter Mondale in 1984. For the next two decades, the DLC developed a wide range of innovative domestic and foreign policies and nurtured candidates committed to rethinking traditional liberalism. Its influence peaked when Bill Clinton, one of the group’s architects, won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1992.

That precedent isn’t exactly analogous to the situation facing Trump’s GOP critics, because the DLC developed while Republicans held the White House—that meant the group could press its case without confronting a president from its own party. A more precise analogy may be the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a group of national-security hawks who fought Jimmy Carter’s arms-control efforts with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. While the group was bipartisan, many of its leading voices were Democrats—such as Paul Nitze and Jeane Kirkpatrick—who openly and repeatedly broke from Carter.

While both of these groups’ goals were controversial, their impact was undeniable. The CPD proved a huge headache for Carter and the DLC fundamentally shifted Democratic thinking on a wide array of issues during the 1990s. Most relevant to the current GOP debate over Trump, prominent party members, including elected officials, became more comfortable expressing dissenting views when they could do so under the umbrella that these groups provided, rather than standing alone in the gale.

That’s exactly what Kristol and the GOP operative Sarah Longwell now hope to replicate with their group, Defending Democracy Together, which they launched with several allies last spring. The group has separate projects defending immigration, free trade, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; and it plans to launch a “Republicans Against Putin” initiative. It has run ads defending Republican senators who have supported Mueller and quoting Ronald Reagan’s praise of legal immigration and free trade. But the organization is still operating at modest scale. “So far, we are doing things that are nicking at Trump,” Kristol acknowledges.

Like Wehner and other Trump critics, Kristol believes the key to redirecting the party is mounting a serious primary challenge against Trump in 2020. For inspiration, Kristol points to a third modern example of party insurrection: the uprising against former President Lyndon B. Johnson by liberal Vietnam War opponents. That movement recruited Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to challenge Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries, and after McCarthy ran unexpectedly well in the first contest in New Hampshire, Johnson abruptly chose not to seek reelection. “What we can do is soften the ground for a primary challenger, who really has to be the person who makes the case,” Kristol says.

Trump, of course, remains favored to beat any primary opponent. But it might still loosen his hold on the party if a challenger consistently ran well in white-collar suburbs—and demonstrated how much Trump’s direction is threatening the GOP’s position with those voters. Between now and 2020, it is precisely those voters that the Defending Democracy group will be targeting with its message that Trump is undermining both the party’s principles and its longterm electoral prospects. “Those are the people we are trying to find, capture, and cultivate,” Longwell says.

The history of these earlier internal rebellions suggests that to regain leverage inside the GOP, Trump’s critics don’t have to prove that they are a majority of their party; they just have to demonstrate that the party can’t win without them. And if the party ignores that lesson, Trump’s GOP critics can find another relevant precedent in the Committee on the Present Danger’s experience: After the CPD’s leaders concluded that most Democrats no longer shared their views, many of them left the party of their youth to join the other side in Ronald Reagan’s administration.