Hey, Republicans: Whose Party Is This, Anyway?
(Bloomberg View) -- I've been re-reading Elizabeth Drew's "Washington Journal: The Events of 1973-1974," as one does in these times. As people may not recall, the scandal that took down Vice President Spiro Agnew peaked just before the Saturday Night Massacre. Agnew resigned on Oct. 10; the court ruling that precipitated the tapes crisis between Richard Nixon and Archibald Cox came down on the 12th, the same day Gerald Ford was nominated for vice president; and Nixon fired Cox on Oct. 20.
What's striking is Drew's analysis -- which I think reflects the conventional wisdom of the time -- of Nixon's reaction to Agnew's growing legal troubles before his resignation. The vice president, she says, was a favorite of Republican conservatives:
The President appears to be trapped by, and somewhat frightened of, the Vice-President. Reporters' conversations with with White House staff members confirm this. The President is said to be worried that the Vice-President will turn his constituency against the President ... Richard Nixon selected Spiro Agnew as his running mate in 1968 in order to build a certain constituency, and kept him on the ticket in 1972 because Agnew had succeeded in doing so. Now that Nixon is in trouble, he needs Agnew's constituency.
Drew went on to say that Agnew "appealed to the anger and discontent in America" and "articulated grievances" against the news media and others. All true -- except it turned out that when Agnew resigned in disgrace, it wasn't "his" constituency at all. He was just borrowing it, and once he resigned, Agnew immediately faded into irrelevance while the constituency marched on.
It wasn't his. It wasn't George Wallace's. It wasn't, and isn't, anyone's -- not even Ronald Reagan's. It's certainly not Sarah Palin's. And I'm fairly sure it's not Donald Trump's, either.
That doesn't mean there's no conservative Republican constituency, or that it doesn't love Trump right now. It does. But I'm extremely skeptical that it means anything more than that. I'm skeptical that it means Republicans are "Trump's party," in the sense that Republican voters have long-term loyalty to him no matter what.
I suspect that if Trump ever was impeached and removed, or even if he was just defeated for renomination, he'd come fairly close to going Agnew on us: He would virtually disappear from the political arena, and the Trump constituency would transform into a Mike Pence constituency or a Ben Sasse constituency or whatever.
I also strongly suspect that the only way it wouldn't be true is if party-aligned media stuck with Trump. But even though embracing conspiracy theories is always a good move for much of that media, I doubt it would. Party is party, and it would be hard for those outlets to walk away from a new (and very conservative) Republican president or even to a new (fairly or very conservative) Republican nominee trying to defeat Kirsten Gillibrand or John Hickenlooper or whoever.
Trump could still make plenty of noise, but my guess is that Republicans would rapidly decide he wasn't really conservative after all, just as they decided George W. Bush wasn't conservative after all in 2007-2008.
None of that necessarily means it's safe to take on Trump from within the party at this point, although he still hasn't really shown much ability to sway voters in primaries. But for now, Trump, Republican politicians and Republican-aligned media have a lot of common interests, and that makes Trump very popular with anyone who takes their cues from Republican presidents, Republican politicians and Republican-aligned media. Just don't count on it to last. Remember Spiro Agnew -- because conservatives never did.
1. Eric Schickler on identity politics and the Democrats.
2. Tom Pepinsky on slavery, citizenship and democratic institutions.
3. Molly Reynolds on the prospects of defeating the House and Senate leadership to get Robert Mueller protection bills considered.
4. Déborah B.L. Farias at the Monkey Cage on the developing election in Brazil.
5. And my Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on the players inside the Trump Organization.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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