On Tuesday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was rejected by Republican voters in his gubernatorial primary with Jeff Johnson, a commissioner from Hennepin County. The main cause of his defeat: failure to follow President Trump with enough alacrity.
Johnson cut an ad at the end of the campaign featuring Pawlenty criticizing Trump after tape broke of Trump in October 2016 talking about grabbing women by the genitals. "Tim Pawlenty stuck his finger in the wind," Johnson intoned. "I won’t panic when it matters most."
Pawlenty had called Trump "unsound, uninformed, unhinged, and unfit to be president of the United States" during the 2016 campaign. Pawlenty lamented, "The Republican Party has shifted. It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trump-like politician."
Pawlenty joins a bevy of other Republican politicians who have seen their support base erode for failure to pay fealty to Trump: Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) among others.
Now, the race as a bit more complex than a mere referendum on Trump. Pawlenty had flamed out in his 2012 presidential bid, and he’d spent the intervening years as a lobbyist. He wasn’t exactly the type to make the heart go pitter-patter for primary voters.
But it is certainly true that Republican politicians cannot afford to cross President Trump in the way they could afford to cross, say, President George W. Bush.
So why is Trump such a litmus test for primary voters?
For the same reason Trump was elected: attitude.
There’s been a continuous two-year effort afoot to intellectualize Trumpism, as though Trump’s popularity is tied to his policy proposals. That’s nonsense. Trump won the Republican primaries because he was — by far — the most aggressive, no-holds-barred candidate. Republican primary voters wanted to see Hillary Clinton pummeled on stage, and Trump offered the best promise of that. After brutalizing Jeb Bush and reducing Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to frustrated stammering, Trump proceeded to pile drive Hillary Clinton at every opportunity. Republican primary voters got precisely what they bargained for.
What’s more, backing Trump lent Republican voters a sense that they were in the fight. After Mitt Romney’s destruction at the hands of Barack Obama in 2012 — after the Democrats turned the cleanest politician of the modern era into a gay-bashing, dog-hating sexist who wanted to put black people “back in chains” — Republicans were fully on board with the Sean Connery line from The Untouchables: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” Trump was the knife, and the morgue, and all the consequences wrapped up into one giant bag of id, topped with a puzzling hairdo.
And, like Sean Connery, much of the Republican base began asking its politicians a simple question: “What are you prepared to do?” What are you prepared to do to defeat the Left? Are you prepared to defend a man on tape bragging about grabbing p*****s? Are you prepared to back him when he says some “very good people” marched at Charlottesville? Are you prepared to cheer when he kisses up to Vladimir Putin? What are you prepared to do?
It isn’t just the Lord who hates a coward — it’s the Republican base. And the Republican base perceives cowardice in anyone who won’t back Trump down the line. In fact, the worse the black mark on Trump’s record, the more the base judges politicians who won’t back him — every sin becomes a referendum on the courage of politicians. Trump is the man who stopped Hillary Clinton and who stands between the country and Hell, in this view — those who mouth niceties about tape of the n-word or holding meetings with Russian lawyers are simply providing aid and comfort to the other side. In this view, Republicans weren’t even willing to smack around Democrats for violating basic rights, but they’re more than willing to earn “strange new respect” by attacking Trump. This makes Trump the only important figure in the Republican Party, and the standard upon which all Republican politicians are judged.
Trump exposed a crack in the Republican political facade: an unwillingness to challenge perceived political norms. He burst through that crack like a big rig busting through a pane-glass window. But here’s the problem: destroying some political norms that required destruction does not mean that all political norms should be destroyed. Pre-Trump Republicans erred on the side of leaving too many political norms in place; Trump errs on the side of eviscerating all political norms in the name of victory. And because Trump won, and continues to win, the Republican base largely believes in the evisceration.
The truth is that Republicans must go up against the Left with the same alacrity with which they attacked Trump in October 2016. They didn’t. Trump did, because he attacks all of his enemies with that alacrity. If Republicans who wish to push back against Trump’s lack of character truly wish to emerge with a conservative movement intact, they must combine Trump’s fighting spirit with the principles Trump lacks. And that means showing the base that they are willing to fight Left tooth and nail — not once, but over and over and over again. Otherwise, the base will continue to judge fighting spirit by the lengths to which politicians will go to defend the often-indefensible.