Why impeachment is about more than Donald Trump

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., criticizes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Democrats for launching a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 25, 2019.

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A fierce battle over the post-Trump direction of the Republican Party has been looming almost from the moment the president took office. But the impeachment inquiry has brought a sudden urgency to the question.

Overall, a majority of Americans now support the House impeachment inquiry. Among Republicans, however, the vast majority of voters stand by the president. For GOP lawmakers, the typical response so far has been to lie low and say little, if anything.

Why We Wrote This

Regardless of the outcome of the impeachment hearings, how enduring will President Trump’s policies be within the Republican Party?

But some cracks in the facade have begun to appear. One House Republican voiced support for the inquiry, and another publicly criticized Mr. Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president as “not OK.” On Tuesday, a prominent GOP senator urged protection for the whistleblower who divulged the July 25 phone call. 

As Republican lawmakers are acutely aware, the decision to back or distance themselves from the president will not only have a direct effect on his – and their own – short-term political futures, but may well shape the image and electoral prospects of their party for years to come.  

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads post-Trump,” says Sarah Longwell, executive director of Defending Democracy Together. 

Sooner or later – whether in January 2025 or before – President Donald Trump will leave the White House. And when the dust settles, there will be a reckoning of sorts for the Republican Party. 

There is no question that President Trump has profoundly disrupted American politics – and the GOP. His diehard supporters voted for that sharp shift, on matters of both style and substance. 

Now, with an impeachment inquiry underway over Mr. Trump’s apparent solicitation of help from Ukraine in his reelection bid, Republicans are once again doing a gut check.

Why We Wrote This

Regardless of the outcome of the impeachment hearings, how enduring will President Trump’s policies be within the Republican Party?

Overall, a majority of Americans now support the House impeachment inquiry, and support for impeachment itself is rising. Among Republicans, however, the vast majority of voters stand by the president. For GOP lawmakers, the typical response so far has been to lie low and say little, if anything, about the impeachment process underway. Perhaps fortunately for them, they are on a two-week recess.   

But some cracks in the facade have begun to appear. A few GOP members have broken with the president, though not supporting impeachment. One House Republican voiced support for the inquiry, and another publicly criticized Mr. Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president – which is at the heart of the controversy – as “not OK.” On Tuesday, a prominent GOP senator urged protection for the whistleblower who divulged the July 25 phone call. 

Even conservative Fox News has shown an uptick in on-air discord, as when host Ed Henry and commentator Mark Levin mixed it up Sunday over the inquiry. 

A fierce battle over the post-Trump direction of the Republican Party has been looming almost from the moment the president took office. But the impeachment inquiry has brought a sudden urgency to the question. As Republican lawmakers are acutely aware, the decision to back or distance themselves from the president will not only have a direct effect on his – and their own – short-term political futures, but may well shape the image and electoral prospects of their party for years to come.  

“The old Republican Party is pretty much dead,” says Cal Jillson, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

By “old Republican Party,” Professor Jillson means the party of President Ronald Reagan, which has been the standard for GOP conservatism since his first election in 1980. Until 2016, the party stood for free trade, fiscal and social conservatism, a welcoming view of immigrants, and U.S. global leadership.

Mr. Trump has turned much of that on its head, alienating some party stalwarts but attracting new adherents – most important, white working class voters, many of whom used to vote Democratic or not at all. That group had been steadily moving away from the Democratic Party for years, but under Mr. Trump’s tenure the drift has become an avalanche. 

Many longtime Republicans have come to see the value of Mr. Trump’s aggressive use of tariffs, new strictures on both legal and illegal immigration, and his “America First” approach to the world. Even some Democrats see value in casting a new eye on the old way of doing things.

But some Trump-supporting Republicans suggest that a return to a more “normal” presidency – in the literal sense of following the usual norms of conduct – may be a relief. The turmoil of the Trump White House, as seen in record-high turnover of top aides, and his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric sent straight to the public via Twitter have left even sympathetic observers exhausted.

But that may mostly be a question of ZIP code, says Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman during the second Bush administration. 

“In Washington, absolutely, there’s a sense of exhaustion,” says Mr. Fleischer, a Trump supporter. “Outside the Beltway, they don’t care about staff turnover. They love the fact that he’s shaking Washington up.” 

For the president’s opponents, the Trump era can’t end soon enough. And for Republican “never Trumpers,” when the time comes it will be an opportunity for stock-taking. 

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads post-Trump,” says Sarah Longwell, executive director of Defending Democracy Together, a conservative group that opposes the president. “It will either remain a Trumpist party driven by populism and nationalism, or it will course correct and realize it doesn’t have an electoral path forward with that kind of agenda.”

But at that moment of reckoning, there’s a danger of learning the wrong lesson, other Republicans say. 

“Trump got some things right: a huge segment of the electorate that felt unheard,” says Republican strategist Liz Mair. “The elites were forgetting about the little guy.”  

That translated, she says, into undoing the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had cost some working Americans their jobs, and cracking down on illegal immigration. 

Still, Ms. Mair sees “Trumpism” mainly as a matter of style, not policy. One of the things supporters like about Trump, whether they agree with him 100% or not, is his chutzpah.  

“He doesn’t dance around, or try to do things nicey nicey. He says what he thinks,” says Ms. Mair. “Frequently I disagree with him a lot on policy, but he does have guts in the way that he communicates with people and he has conviction.” 

Alternatively, whoever tries to succeed Mr. Trump could copy him policy for policy, but if they can’t grab voters in a visceral way, they won’t succeed. 

As for the latest maelstrom, centered on Mr. Trump’s request of the Ukrainian president to look into former Vice President (and current 2020 candidate) Joe Biden and his son Hunter – possibly as part of a quid pro quo arrangement – the president has again violated conventions that most American politicians wouldn’t. 

But did Mr. Trump’s request amount to an impeachable abuse of power? That’s for the majority House Democrats to decide. If they impeach, the action moves to the Republican-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict the president and remove him from office – a mighty hill for Democrats to climb.

Impeachment followed by acquittal could help Mr. Trump win reelection. And a reelected Mr. Trump who has survived impeachment could grow even bolder in busting the norms of presidential behavior. Such a turn of events would send the Reagan-era party even further into the rearview mirror. 

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report.

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