The nation’s Democrats and dwindling legions of never-Trump conservatives have thrilled to the one-man rebellion of Rep. Justin Amash, the Michigan libertarian whose thoughtful, damning tweetstorm on impeachment made him the only Republican to break ranks on the most divisive issue in American politics.
As this one crack appeared in the dam, President Donald Trump’s critics waited for more. Everyone knows the script once the first brave voice speaks out: the lone holdout on a jury, convincing his colleagues that the defendant may not be guilty after all. The union organizer at the factory, rallying her coworkers against greater wrongs. The whistleblower standing alone on the Senate floor, railing until truth prevails and the corrupt are exposed.
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The problem is that the script comes from movies. That was Henry Fonda in the jury room, not a real foreman; that was Sally Field as Norma Rae organizing the cotton mill; and Jimmy Stewart delivering his lines on a studio version of the Senate floor.
When it comes to real politics, the record is grim. History may reward your courage, but the politics of the moment suggests that the heretics end up leading a one-man band into political obscurity.
In 1964, when the Senate handed a blank check to President Lyndon Johnson “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, in Vietnam”—which LBJ used as the legal basis for the massive escalation in years to come— 98 senators voted for it. Only two senators, Democrats Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, voted “no” on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. As the war escalated, and it became clear the engagement was a national catastrophe, history vindicated their position and other senators, like Arkansas’ William Fulbright and Wisconsin’s Gaylord Nelson, wished they had done the same. But it didn’t do much good for Morse and Gruening. Both were defeated for reelection in 1968, and neither held political office again.
Eight years later, even before a band of burglars tried to break into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, two Republican House members challenged President Richard Nixon in the Republican primary. For California’s Pete McCloskey, the issue was Nixon’s failure to end the war in Vietnam. For Ohio’s John Ashbrook, it was Nixon’s various apostasies from conservative orthodoxy—the turn toward China, arms deals with Moscow, wage and price controls. Not only did Ashbrook and McCloskey lose, but barely anyone remembers Nixon had challengers. Ashbrook withdrew, and McCloskey wound up with one delegate out of 1,348.
Even prominent party leaders run aground when calling for resistance to a president. Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic nominee, turned hard against FDR’s New Deal, ultimately campaigning for Republican nominee Alf Landon in 1936, who lost in a 46-state landslide. In 1940, Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, sought the nomination for himself, opposing both FDR’s unprecedented third term and his New Deal policies. Garner got 61 delegates out of 1,093 and retired from public life.
For sheer persistence on the “lonely voice” front, no one can top Jeannette Rankin, who was elected as the first female member of the House of Representatives in 1916. A year later, she was one of 50 House members to vote against the American entry into World War I, and she left the House after one term. Twenty-two years later, in 1940, she went back to the House; and a year later, she became the only member ofeitherhouse to vote against the declaration of war with Japan. Once again, her first term was her last. (And in this case, history doesn’t smile so kindly on her positions).
Politics is a numbers game, and the record shows that there’s a much safer route for dissidents to survive politically: be part of a decent-sized cohort. By 1968, for example, antiwar Democrats in the Senate—George McGovern, Frank Church, Gaylord Nelson, among others—all won reelection, in part because by then, support for the war in Vietnam had eroded. A more striking example comes from Ronald Reagan’s near-successful campaign in 1976 to depose President Gerald Ford. Despite the conviction of Ford and others that the Reagan primary challenge cost Ford the White House, Reagan faced no hostility from the party base when he ran again in 1980—in large measure because he was much more in sync with the GOP base than Ford was. And while Ted Kennedy did not succeed in unseating President Jimmy Carter in 1980, both his stature in the Senate and the widespread discontent with Carter inside the party left Kennedy as a major voice in American politics for another quarter century.
It’s theoretically possible that some new revelation, or a sudden downturn in the economy, will make Trump vulnerable enough that his party’s House and Senate candidates will find it a political asset to distance themselves from the top of the ticket. But given the willingness of Republicans to defend, and even embrace, the character and conduct of this president, it should not be a surprise to Amash that he finds himself in a party of one. Right now, a primary challenge from ex-Governor William Weld, and a potential campaign by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, look to suffer a similar fate.
Trump’s approval ratings inside his party are now at 90 percent. Those officeholders who have called out the president have found their political careers derailed, one by one: Mark Sanford in South Carolina, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Bob Corker in Tennessee. Trump’s political supporters have purged party officials in several states for suspect loyalty. And the chair of the Republican Party, Ronna McDaniel, no longer goes by the name “Ronna Romney McDaniel” because the president asked her to drop the name of one of his occasional critics.
For all the idealism ofTwelve Angry MenandMr. Smith Goes to Washington, there is a different Hollywood example that Amash should pay attention to:High Noon,the 1952 Western. When Marshall Will Kane asks the people of Hadleyville to help him face down the vicious Miller Gang, the citizens respond by cowering inside their homes. Kane, for all his bravery, is left to stand alone.
It’s no mystery why in today’s Republican Party, so many of those who share Amash’s view of Trump are behaving like the citizens of Hadleyville. “One man with courage makes a majority,” an old adage goes, but when it comes to political heretics, that’s not the way to bet.