John McCain Could Be the Republican Canary in the Bannonite Coal Mine

The ongoing failure of congressional Republicans to investigate Donald Trump’s financial conduct or his relationship with Russia is strong evidence that the GOP is not going to emerge as a force for democracy or the constitution. Instead, it is increasingly clear that in the next few years the Republican will either evolve into the governing party of a non-democratic regime or collapse entirely. With each passing day, the middle ground between these two outcomes becomes even smaller.

This unfortunate reality underscores a major strategic dilemma for the resistance. On one hand, the Republican Party has become an organization that while at times not fully embracing Bannonite authoritarianism, has been captured by its most reactionary elements and has repeatedly declined to meaningfully stand up for democracy at this critical moment in American history. On the other hand, the resistance needs support from some Republicans to succeed. The makeup of the current congress, the difficult electoral map in the Senate for 2018, and Democratic leadership that has, at times, not seemed to fully internalize the degree of the threat the Trump administration poses to our country, mean that defections from some Republicans into some anti-Trump position is essential to stop our unhinged and authoritarian leaning President.

Unless President Trump’s popularity sinks below 30% or so, which will only happen if his base begins to abandon him, it is almost unimaginable that the Republicans who run congress will work against Trump and for democracy. Nor is it likely that a palace coup led by the politically savvy Vice-President Mike Pence will lead to Trump’s ouster ending this period of democratic rollback. Thus, collectively the GOP will likely remain loyal to Trump for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean that every Republican will.

Republicans who break with Trump can play a crucial role for the resistance, not because they will support progressive causes or lead their party back to sanity-they won’t. However, they can deprive the administration of majority ofvotes in congress, particularly the Senate. Additionally, these high level defections can signal to other Republicans, for example, in state and local governments, that there is something wrong and that it is okay to oppose the President.

For reasons of status, image and personal history, no Republican is potentially more important to this process than John McCain. McCain is a longtime conservative who, until 2008, specifically when he chose the proto-Trumpian Sarah Palin as his running mate, was also seen as decent, principled and capable of forming his own opinions. McCain has also spent much of the last decade or more seeking to position himself as the leading Russia hawk in congress. McCain has also sent decidedly mixed message about Trump. He traveled to Ukraine and Georgia shortly before the inauguration to reassert his support for those countries in the face of Russian aggression, but upon returning to the US voted to confirm Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. McCain also recently made a well-received speech in Germany arguing that the west must redouble its efforts to stand together in the face of challenges from Russia while implicitly criticizing President Trump, but waited until the recent Michael Flynn scandal to call for investigations of Russia’s role in our elections.

Most significantly, last fall while facing a somewhat tough reelection campaign, that he ultiamtely won by 12 points, for what will probably be his last term in the Senate, McCain endorsed, allegedly with reluctance, Trump’s campaign for President. This last point is significant. McCain, a man who has spent a lifetime lecturing the American people about patriotism, chose to support a candidate who McCain knew was getting help from Moscow, over a highly qualified Democrat, who even shared McCain’s hawkish views on most foreign policy questions.

McCain did this for two, and only two, reasons. First, he wanted his team to win; and second he thought endorsing Clinton would have hurt his own reelection bid. This is not exactly a profile in patriotism, or courage. We will never know if a McCain endorsement of Clinton would have changed the outcome of the election, but given McCain’s popularity among white voters, and how his endorsement would have kept the Russia hacking story in the news more, it is certainly possible and probably likely.

Thus, John McCain, like the rest of his party, is no ally of the resistance, but McCain, and others in his party, for example Susan Collins of Maine, could break with the rest of the Republicans in Congress, on at least some issues. If that happens, it could be extremely beneficiary for the resistance. Therein lies the conundrum for those seeking to ensure the future of American democracy. The Republicans in general are standing firmly on the side of democratic rollback, but individual Republicans can, with some luck and a lot of deft politics, be moved away from these positions. The challenge for the resistance is to create an environment where McCain, and other Republicans, feel they can break with their party without casting their lot with the far left, while at the same time remaining aware that, at least for now, Republican support for Trump remains frustratingly solid.

Photo: cc/MedillDC