Originally published in The Sunday Independent
Controversial figures are supported until they aren’t. A party will support a divisive figure if they feel they’ll deliver votes and power. But once the public starts to desert them, their enablers soon follow.
Take Joseph McCarthy. The Republican senator from Wisconsin was at his cruel red-baiting height in the early 1950s. One moment in the US senate, outlined by Robert Caro in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, encapsulated his control over his party and his country’s Congress.
McCarthy was presenting alleged evidence that communists had infiltrated the US State department. Confidently and dramatically, he invited any of his fellow senators to examine the cases piled next to him that he insisted proved his claims. Herbert Lehman, a Democratic senator, took him up on his offer, approaching McCarthy with his hand stretched out for the files. McCarthy paused, laughed and then sneered, “Go back to your seat, old man.”
Lehman turned to his colleagues “obviously appealing for support”. Not one senator, from either party, gave it. All eyes turned to the floor and without back-up, Lehman was forced to return to his seat defeated; McCarthy’s “evidence” was left unchecked. One moment – but emblematic of the effect a McCarthy figure can have. The Republican party stood by the leader of the ‘Red Scare’ for years because the public rewarded them for it. In one year, he received more invites to speak at Republican events than all his colleagues, combined. McCarthy enjoyed approval ratings of 50pc at his peak and only suffered the active disapproval of 29pc of voters. Senators he supported got elected and vice versa.
And that’s why the Republican Senate leader Robert Taft openly supported McCarthy’s tactics, why President Eisenhower refused to publicly condemn the senator and why even John F Kennedy was loath to challenge him directly, fearing backlash from the Irish-American Boston community. After four years, McCarthy eventually overstepped by targeting the US Army. His support levels dropped to the low 30s. Only then did his Republican colleagues fully desert him, with half of them ultimately voting for his censure in the Senate.
Divisive political figures are frequently supported internally by their parties, right up until the moment they lose the external public support.
Republican figures made a similar calculation when they decided to row in behind Donald Trump as their candidate. Characters who had denounced him as a “fraud” and “utterly amoral” became his greatest defenders.
Recent signs tell us that may be changing. This can be seen most starkly in the battle to control the US Senate.
Republican senators in close races might not be openly denouncing Trump, but they’ve started to distance themselves from him politically – a sign they feel that the electorate are moving away from the current commander in chief. The Republican leadership is in a desperate race to retain control of the Senate. And the odds are currently against them with The Economist giving the Democratic party a 72pc chance of winning a majority in the upper house.
In Arizona, Iowa, Maine and South Carolina, sitting Republican senators are under pressure. The New York Times cited an analysis last week of the advertising strategies of seven incumbent Republican senators who are in tight races. Some 48 TV ads were run by these campaigns over a recent seven-day period. Not a single advert referenced Donald Trump.
A stunning departure – and evidence that in tight races, Republicans no longer see a relationship with their leader as an electoral positive.
Some senators feel their seats are in such doubt that they’re turning to issues like healthcare or attack ads – not to the popularity of Donald Trump – to save their seats. Not all of the signs that the party is moving from Trump are as subtle. Last week, the Trump-endorsed Republican senator Ben Sasse was recorded openly criticising his party leader – citing fears that Trump will cost the Republicans the Senate.
The Nebraskan senator, who was initially critical of Trump but had gone quiet in recent years, openly criticised his coronavirus response and foreign policy decisions, going as far to say, “What the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea? It is not a good idea.”
Individual Republicans losing faith should be a warning sign to Trump. His campaign understands that they need a major moment to shift this race’s momentum. Momentum is everything in the final days of a campaign – it drives turnout as voters like to establish an emotional link with a successful movement. The campaign has yet to find their trajectory-shifting moment.
The tactics of Republican senators in the election run in should be observed closely, because they give an indication of their end-game mindset.
Trump has been open and honest about his desire to dispute the election result should he lose next month. He’s repeatedly voiced concerns about the integrity of postal voting, citing false examples of potential fraud.
And he’s clearly stated he needs his nominee Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court soon because he wants a full complement of judges in place in case the court adjudicates over the election result.
He’s not being subtle about his intentions. But he can only get away with denying an election result if he has the support of his establishment enablers.
Should the current trajectory continue, Mitch McConnell and the wider Republican leadership will start to see Trumpism as a busted flush. The reward for continuing to entertain his wishes will disappear. McConnell has already broken ranks by refusing to agree to the trillion dollar stimulus package Trump now demands; capping his negotiating position at $500m.
It’s possible that, after this election, Trump will find himself in the position of a Herbert Lehman, not a Joseph McCarthy; confidently striding forward to face down an opponent – only to turn around and see no one there to support him.
Lorcan Nyhan is head of training at The Communications Clinic