As the ground shifts quickly beneath the feet of the Trump administration, there are Republicans who have stood their ground. Several groups under the umbrella organization Defending Democracy Together are working to restore traditional GOP standards on tariffs, on welcoming legal immigration — and now, on persuading other Republicans to support the impeachment inquiry as a matter of constitutional principle. One of those groups, Republicans for the Rule of Law, is spending a million dollars on its campaign to back investigations without political interference. The woman who directs these organizations has conservative credentials as long as your right arm: first woman to head the national Log Cabin Republicans group, publisher of the Bulwark conservative website, and a job at a conservative lobbying and consulting company. Sarah Longwell wants Republicans — especially on Capitol Hill — to screw their courage to the sticking place and stand up to Trump transgressions — otherwise, Republicans will devolve from a political party into a personality cult.
Who is the Republican audience you’re speaking to, and which Republicans in particular do you want to hear your message?
Ever since Donald Trump was elected, we’ve recognized that you can separate Republicans into two buckets, crudely: one is Trump lovers, the always-Trumpers, the people who attend rallies and the people who will stick with him even if he shoots somebody on 5th Avenue.
And then there are the people that we believe we appeal to, which we call reluctant Trump voters, people who didn’t vote for Donald Trump in the primary, did vote for him in the general but felt pretty queasy about doing so, and have continued to rationalize their support for Donald Trump in a retrospective kind of way: Was he better than Hillary? I still think so; he’s done some good things with judges and tax cuts.
But ultimately these are people who want somebody who’s going to represent the country well and don’t want to see the presidency become a criminal enterprise. They don’t like Democrats, but they have only so much tolerance for Donald Trump.
In which group do you find yourself?
I’m a Never Trumper. A lot of times, people treat Never Trump as though it’s monolithic and it means one central thing, but there’s a wide array of people in the Never Trump category. And the only thing they have in common is that basically under no circumstances would they support Donald Trump.
I am one of those people even though I might have not very much in common with, let’s say, an evangelical leader like Peter Wehner, who for a totally different set of reasons is Never Trump.
What then is your message about what should happen next? Should impeachment inquiries proceed? Do you think he should resign right now?
Well I don’t think him resigning right now is probably in the realm of reality, but certainly that there should be an impeachment inquiry, and I think that Republicans should be supporting an inquiry.
Donald Trump is who Donald Trump has always been. The people who are behaving differently are these Republicans, people like [Sens.] Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. To have them be silent on so many of the things that Donald Trump has done has been actively heartbreaking.
So for us right now, the hope is that the fever will break somewhat and people like [Republican Sens.] Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney will find their footing and say, enough is enough.
What’s interesting about [President Richard] Nixon, Republicans were with him up until the point when they weren’t. [Republican Sen.] Barry Goldwater went with the leadership in the House and Senate and went to tell Nixon to resign.
That’s the kind of role that a Mitt Romney could play as an elder statesman. There’s actually a lot of parallels between him and Barry Goldwater. They were both Republicans who won their party’s nomination and went on to lose in a general election, went back into the Senate, and sort of assumed that elder statesman role.
The question is whether somebody like Mitt Romney will at some point go to Ben Sasse, go to [GOP Sen.] Susan Collins, go to [GOP Sen.] Lisa Murkowski and say, we need to all stand up together and say this is wrong. You cannot keep inviting foreign interference into our country’s election. We’re gonna say so, and we’re gonna call for this inquiry to continue, we’re going to get to the bottom of it, and then we will decide what the next steps are.
The Republican Party was purged by Watergate and then came back strong with Reagan and the beginning of 20-some years of Republicans in the White House. Do you think that would happen this time?
Your point is exactly correct that while Reagan was able to win in 1980 and we were able to sort of establish the decades of conservative dominance, that was because Republicans didn’t go down with the ship on Nixon. They made that clean break.
One of the keys to what is going on right now is that if the Republicans decide to go down with the Trump ship, it will be so much more difficult for them.
Because if they go down with the Trump ship, it will just completely cement the idea that this Republican Party is not a Republican Party at all — it is a Trumpist party and it is not bound to any rule of law, it’s not bound to any set of standards, or any sort of fixed ideological north star. It’s just all about Trump and a cult of personality.
One of the things that is not a remote historical parallel is that Nixon had the capacity for shame. He was caught and he knew it, and he walked away. Ultimately he still had some fidelity to the notion of the office that he held, and the country that he served.
And Donald Trump doesn’t have any of that. No capacity for shame, no ability to put the interests of the country above his own. So I think that the reason that he would resign would have to be motivated by something much more cynical, which is he saw it as the only way to avoid some kind of shattering embarrassment or to act like it was his idea or do it on his own terms.
Jeff Flake, the former Republican senator from Arizona, said that if the vote in the Senate were secret, 35 Republicans would vote to convict. What is your relationship with Republican members of Congress that you’d have a sense of what they’re thinking, and that your thinking might influence them?
The organization talks to lots of people who are in Congress or who are major figures within the party in one way or another. The maddening thing is that what Jeff Flake said, it’s 100% true; what Republicans say about President Trump behind closed doors looks nothing like what they say publicly.
Most responsible Republican legislators they can’t stand him but they just they don’t see an electoral way yet to really stand up to him, because everybody who’s done it so far, they all ended up out — either being beaten in a primary or losing in a general election.
I can’t quite get my head around why the job would be so important that if you lose your seat in Congress because you stood up and did the right thing — it seems so crazy to me that people wouldn’t look at it as an opportunity to go down in the history books as the person who stood up and said, enough is enough. And instead the best that people can seem to do is retire quietly.
Do you think that Republicans like these, who wouldn’t mind getting rid of Trump and starting fresh, are looking to the Democrats then to do their dirty work before they have to?
I guess I’m not quite sure. There is a real sense of urgency about not losing power. It’s not just their own individual seat; it is also holding on to the Senate, which they prioritize incredibly highly. If there’s one rationalization I hear over and over, more than anything else, from elected officials or just average Republican voters, it is yes, Trump is really bad. He is terrible, he’s gotta go. But Elizabeth Warren is a socialist and she is crazy and we just can’t let those Democrats take over.
I am, and a lot of the people I know who are Republicans opposed to Trump, have been very concerned that the Democrats have seemed to be gravitating toward an Elizabeth Warren as their candidate. But also we’re deeply concerned that she’ll lose, because she’s going to have a really hard time picking up right-leaning independents.
And the reason that Democrats did so well in 2018 is that they nominated a slew of moderate independent candidates, and that really worked for them to pick up those swing voters.
There is a reason President Trump is basically inviting foreign interference in the election to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, because that’s the guy he’s most afraid of. He wants to run against Elizabeth Warren and call her Pocahontas, and he wants to call her a socialist. And that fits perfectly in the narrative that brings Republicans who might otherwise bolt from him back into the fold.
Your worry if Elizabeth Warren were the nominee is that she would lose to Trump, who would have a second term and also reinforce Trumpism as the party identity?
Yes, that’s right. I have almost no greater fear than a second term of Trump, because I think that a President Trump who is completely unrestrained by electoral consequences can do an enormous amount of damage in a second four years, not only to the party and entrenching it as a Trump party but really to the country and to the institutions.
Given that, would bidding farewell to Trump do anything to get rid of Trumpism?
I do not think Republicans have a plan for the future, because they’ve sacrificed so much of their identity to Trump that they have to hold on to him now. It’s one of the reasons I think that Democrats should not take risks with their nominee. They need somebody who’s going to win by double digits because they have to so thoroughly repudiate Trump and Trumpism that the Republican Party never makes this mistake again. It’s got to build a new identity that’s centered around ideas and policies and things that people actually think will improve their lives. And until the Republican Party can figure that out, it’s just going to keep falling back on the Trump crutch.
So what do you want to happen? Do you want impeachment and conviction to proceed? Do you want to wait for the election, or is that too iffy?
What I want is for there to be a serious bipartisan inquiry. I want Republicans to act responsibly about their oversight responsibilities and to say, we’re going to participate. I don’t think, just like Ben Sasse said, that they should reflexively circle the wagons and say, nothing to see here. There is clearly something to see there. It’s been in broad daylight, and Republicans should say that it’s wrong.
If they don’t think it’s impeachable, fine — they should say that it’s wrong, because it is. I would like to see those Republicans acting responsibly and not just keeping quiet. The silence is what is so unforgivable.
Is the tipping point going to come from the top down, from Congress and Republican leadership down, or the bottom up, when voters say no, we’ve had it with this?
They have a very symbiotic relationship. When polling comes out that shows that 24% of Republicans support not impeachment but an impeachment inquiry, that emboldens legislators to say OK, well, some percentage of the party is interested in this. And then as they speak out, more Republicans say it’s wrong; Republicans are saying that this is a problem, then more Republican voters will think it’s a problem, and they can work off of each other.
There’s a reason that [the Trump campaign] has announced tens of millions of dollars in ad buys, because what they’re trying to do is keep public opinion as low on the impeachment inquiry field as possible.
The conservative columnist Max Boot told me that of people like him — the Never Trumpers — have enough for a dinner party but not a political party. At this point, how big a table do you guys need?
It’s not meant to be a political movement but I do think that there’s an opportunity for a new political movement, especially as you see the Democratic Party gravitate more towards candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. There are groups of people who believe in the country, the Constitution, capitalism, in a lot of the founding principles that made us who we are, that would like to see those protected, who find themselves calling themselves either moderate Democrats or moderate Republicans.
Those two groups now have an awful lot in common. And so I’m not sure that there’s not a new political realignment occurring that could find itself at some point dividing itself more along the lines of sort of responsible constitutionalists, and people who are in a sort of constant grievance/disrupter pose.