Shooting rubber bullet grenades at protesting priests. Catastrophically botching the pandemic response, resulting in a public health and economic calamity. Tweeting “white power” memes. Ranting in front of empty arenas about how he navigated a “slippery ramp.” Being MIA while his Russian benefactors put out a hit on American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The last three months have been a political dumpster fire for President Trump, and the flames have engulfed Republicans up and down the ballot. But while pockets of Republican resistance have roasted Dear Leader, elected officials in D.C. and their Svengalis in the consultant class have remained steadfast.
These swamp creatures were never the biggest Trumpers in the first place — his initial campaign team was an assortment of D-listers and golf course grunts rather than traditional GOP ad men. So why, as Trump’s numbers plummet, are these establishment RINOs continuing to debase themselves to protect someone who is politically faltering and couldn’t care less about them?
I reached out to nine of my former allies and rivals who still consult for Republican candidates at the highest levels of Senate and House races, some who have gone full MAGA and others for whom the president is not their cup of tea. I asked them to speak candidly, without their names attached, to learn about the real behind-the-scenes conversations about the state of affairs. How is the president’s performance impacting their candidate? Are there discussions about either storming the cockpit or gently trying to #WalkAway from Trump? And finally, why in the hell aren’t they more pissed at this incompetent asshole who is fucking up their lives?
What I found in their answers was one part Stockholm Syndrome, one part survival instinct. They all may not love the president, but most share his loathing for his enemies on the left, in the media, and the apostate Never Trump Republicans with a passion that engenders an alliance with the president, if not a kinship. And even among those who don’t share the tribalistic hatreds, they perceive a political reality driven by base voters and the president’s shitposting that simply does not allow for dissent.
As one put it: “There are two options, you can be on this hell ship or you can be in the water drowning.”
So I give you the view from the U.S.S Hellship, first the political state of play, and then the psychological.
The impact of Trump’s disastrous three months on down ballot candidates was best summed up in the first text message I got back.
“Could you use a poop emoji for my comments?”
The assessment was excreta across the board.
- “Every shred of evidence points to a likely ass kicking in the fall.”
- “Well it’s as bad as it gets right now.”
- “Right now most campaigns are thanking baby jesus every day the election isn’t held today.”
- “I’ve got Trump down in Texas. [Republican Senator Steve] Daines down in Montana.”
- “It’s certainly better than public polling, but it’s not good.”
- “I told very high ranking people in the Trump Administration that it hasn’t been like this since October of 06” – when President Bush’s numbers were tanking over fallout from the Iraq War, Katrina, and the Mark Foley scandal.
But in 2006, Republican candidates could strategically distance themselves from an unpopular president without facing a mutiny within the ranks. That won’t work in 2020, as — though Trump’s numbers are plummeting with some demos — they are solidifying or improving among his core support demographic. Which makes running afoul of Trump fatal in the eyes of these strategists.
“There are practical realities — we ran a bunch of red district primaries, and it would come back that the number one issue for 80+% of Republican primary voters was loyalty to Donald Trump. I’m not making that number up,” a respondent told me.
Several consultants pointed to the situation that Sen. John Cornyn faces in Texas to illustrate the problem. They indicated that internal polling shows Trump either tied or very slightly ahead in the Lone Star State. One said Cornyn should be feeling very lucky that Beto O’Rourke ran for president, rather than tacking slightly center and spending $90 million on a campaign to unseat the incumbent senator. Another said Cornyn’s “quietly in trouble.”
But rather 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.
This same calculus pervades no matter the race, no matter the district, no matter the geography: The operatives insist that the pro-Trump zealotry the president’s supporters demand makes it far more difficult for candidates to win over anyone else.
A consultant who advises a challenger in a swing house seat that Hillary Clinton carried, for example, indicated that they thought they had less ability to distance from Trump than those who are in safer, more MAGAfied districts. “No dissent is tolerated [with the base],” and “If my candidate is going to win, it’s going to be by 1 or 2 percent they can’t afford to lose any votes [on the pro-Trump flank].”
In fact, some candidates in competitive House seats are going the other direction because of what it takes to win a primary. A different consultant said: “My candidate didn’t vote for Trump. But we’re running ads right now about being a big Trump supporter,” because in that district “drap[ing] yourself in Trump is still a good decision.”
This view is so widespread that when asked, all of the consultants but two said that they haven’t even had a conversation about the possibility of distancing from Trump with any of their candidates or campaign teams. Another put it this way: “The idea of distancing, if it’s discussed, it’s discussed very quietly; it’s discussed one-on-one. You wouldn’t talk about it on a conference call… maybe someone would, but let’s just say it hasn’t happened yet and I’m on a lot of those calls.”
Sit with that for a second. The idea of separating from Trump is so verboten in GOP circles that the best consultants won’t even talk about talking about doing it in mixed company, for fear of being stigmatized, and thus losing potential client work on other campaigns.
Some offered that the calculus might change in the fall, when their backs are against the wall. “We’ll probably get to Labor Day before any chess pieces are moved on the board.” But for now, they are paralyzed by the experiences of 2016, when Trump rose from the dead several times, only to make those who challenged him weaker politically. So if anyone is expecting the rats to start jumping off the sinking ship, they better be patient.
In the meantime, these strategists are left with the same strategy they’ve spent three years honing: Hope & Hiding.
“But if we get to fall and unemployment is in single digits and Dow over 30k he’s going to get reelected,” one said. “That’s why you don’t want to jump out right now and separate yourself because in the Fall the whole world will be different.”
Per another consultant: “Maybe if we don’t talk about Trump and we run on issues and we talk about constituent service and we continue the antagonism on the libs maybe we eek this thing out by a couple of points.”
Suggestions that maybe, just maybe, in the face of these headwinds, that they should try to win back some of the suburban vote and claim their own destiny rather than grabbing a middle seat on Trump Airlines and hope for the best, are met with derision. Trump “sucks the oxygen out of the room from every other candidate” to such a degree that you “can’t run independent of him,” as one put it.
Another put it more succinctly: “The press and the twitterati…they don’t know a fuckin thing.”
To a person, they professed that the only option they have is to go hard negative on their opponent and run a campaign on niche issues and accomplishments they’ve had while in office in the hopes that some slice of the electorate will be able to distinguish their candidate from Trump — even if the candidate themselves is unwilling to do it.
And maybe these guys are right, and those of us sitting in the cheap seats are wrong to think it’s worth a shot to try to get out from under an incompetent, overmatched, pathetic, racist, deteriorating president. Maybe Trump’s Hussein-like numbers with the MAGA crowd is such that anyone who dares cross him automatically is snuffed out the way Jeff Flake and Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller were in 2016 and ’18.
Maybe. But it’s interesting that at a time when the numbers are “as bad as it gets,” the notion of trying to separate from Trump is not even being contemplated. Maybe there is something more to it.
The Orangilla Mindset
It’s a natural human trait to tell someone what they want to hear. So as an avowed Never Trumper, I’m used to these hushed conversations with my former colleagues where they commiserate over how bad Trump is, and how they wish they didn’t have to do what they are doing but circumstance has left no choice but sticking with Trump or quitting and becoming a goat farmer.
“We haven’t worked for anybody who seriously thinks the guy has it all together,” said one consultant.
While at some level, I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure some, if not most, Republican consultants and candidates snicker at Trump from time to time. In private. At the bar. Very quietly. Off the record.
I’m also sure that in many cases their acknowledgment of the policy wins are in earnest. The more ideological among them expressed genuine excitement at some of the victories that they don’t believe would’ve occurred under other administrations.
But what I found was that, underneath that surface level eye-rolling at Trump and hat-tipping to the record on judges, there was an emotional alliance with the president that is deeper than they might let on in mixed company. A compartmentalization of the badness of the orange man, set aside in favor of a deep and visceral hatred of the president’s enemies.
That compartmentalization is reflected in the emotional valence that comes when discussing the things about our terrible political moment that really anger them. From my vantage point, the anger should be directed at Trump. After all, in most every way besides financial Trump has tarnished their daily lives. One admitted to not being able to discuss his job with his wife any longer. Another lamented being called “racist” and “evil.” All expressed exasperation that Trump encompasses everything they talk about. Some felt deeply internally conflicted about work that used to make them proud. They all felt Trump had left them with no other options. Only a couple seemed to be having much fun.
So shouldn’t they be pissed at this egomaniacal racist who is making their lives miserable, bringing down their candidates, and affecting their home lives and friendships — simply because he can’t for a single hour control his outbursts? Shouldn’t they be clamoring to tell him to fuck off and act like a damn adult and stop putting them in these terrible situations?
When asked, almost to a person, the answer was no. For some, he was simply a frustration, a circumstance to deal with, a challenge, a problem to solve. For one, there was a silver (or just green) lining in a Trump loss.
“If you actually think about this very selfishly … If [Trump] loses, I make more money,” one said. “He loses, we go back to a semi-normal Republican party that leans more populist that I think a lot of people would like. We get to run all these challenger races and probably take back the house in two years, maybe even gains on the state level because of the extremist Democrat administration. I make more money. So that’s a very selfish view and people have talked about that.”
But for several others, Trump was someone they related to, a shadow side who was an emotional outlet for their anger.
They are mad (rightly) at people like Ben Sasse who act like they take the moral high ground only to hide under the hay bales until their primary is over. They are mad at people like Jeff Flake who moralized while angling for a new job in corporate America.
They are mad at the Lincoln Project for attacking innocent GOP Senators. (“There’s no coming back for these Lincoln Project motherfuckers, it doesn’t matter what next. They are madder at those people than [at] Trump for sure.”)
They are mad at the media. (“There is so much hyperbole around Trump and around these events. And it goes so thermonuclear outrage every fuckin 3 or 4 days. The scar tissue built up on what is a big thing anymore.”)
Really, really mad at the media. (“There’s not a moment where they are not in your face. It’s not bullshit that they are a leftist institution. The mask is off.”)
They are mad at the left. (“I’m not going to bow to every liberal altar on this”).
Really, really mad at the left. (“Woke culture has created no other lane for you but to support him on the one or two things that you like and then you have to countenance all the rest of the bullshit”).
And so they remain passengers on a hell ship with no control over where it takes them. Emotionally tied to a man who shares their enemies, convinced that his ills are outweighed by theirs. Politically chained to a president who has the key to voters they need. Unable and unwilling to attempt to do much of anything about it. And resigned to that fate.
“Is this some sort of death bed, like ‘ohh look back at my life I wish I had fought Trump?’ I’m not there.”
And the hell ship sails on.