Last week, Democrats swept into complete control of the Virginia state government. This momentous success comes a year after governor Ralph Northam (D-Va.) faced calls for resignation for a now-infamous racist image in his medical school yearbook. The next-in-line for the governorship had Northam resigned was Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who faced two sexual assault allegations. Should both men have stepped down without replacement, Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat, would have assumed the office of the executive, but he too admitted to wearing blackface decades ago. The Democratic Party, which has been on a continual rise in Virginia for years, confronted the possibility that the mass resignation of their leadership would elevate Republican Kirk Cox, Speaker of the Virginia House, to the office of the governor. Terrified of this possibility, Democrats quietly backed down, forced no resignations and held onto all three offices.
Neither political party in the U.S. wants to fall from power and grace for any reason, especially for an embarrassing scandal. The thought of losing an executive office, in particular, is enough to make a party tremble. While Democrats are fully willing to condemn those within their own ranks, hold party members accountable and call for their removal, they maintain the same reluctance Republicans do toward sacrificing a seat of power.
When the yearbook image first came to light, the party, which has taken a zero-tolerance policy to such transgressions, immediately unified in calls for Northam’s resignation. This was not a particularly difficult political calculus to make; the party’s control of the executive branch would remain firm. When Fairfax was accused of sexual assault, the party again united against their own political figure in calls to step down, although this time with less force as some insisted on investigation and due process. When Herring admitted to his own use of blackface, the party fell suddenly silent.
Republicans experience no similar moral conflict. To be clear, Donald Trump has built his fortune through fraud, boastfully admitted to groping women and refused to rent apartments to black residents, leading President Nixon’s justice department to sue his organization for violating the Fair Housing Act. The man has ravaged ostensibly “conservative” values, demonstrated a decades-long indefensible history of racism and proven himself to be temperamentally unfit for office. If the GOP were to act on conscience, as the Democrats of Virginia did at first with their governor, and force out the president, their political power would be unaffected, and the status of the office would be restored.
For the duration of his presidential campaign — once he was declared the standard-bearer of the GOP — the Republicans of all levels frequently qualified their support for the candidate with faith that he would select conservative judges, advance deregulation, cut taxes and, most importantly, keep a Democrat out of the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed Trump for the purpose of preventing “a third term of Barack Obama.” Paul Ryan’s endorsement included the qualifier that “he and I have our differences,” but justified support for the nominee “on the issues that make up our agenda.” Polling data shows that Republican voters in 2016 identified as being motivated by Supreme Court nominations.
However, if these claims of agenda-driven allegiance were truthful, the party would have turned on the president after his election. Or any of his offensive statements or dangerous actions since taking office. Staunch conservative Mike Pence, untouched by scandal, would rise to lead the country and appoint a conservative vice president to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
If Trump’s resignation or impeachment would lead to a Democrat taking his job, the Republican refusal to oppose him might be understood as a political necessity. But the fact that the president’s replacement would be the equally conservative and less scandal-prone Pence demonstrates the truth behind Republican support for the president: They like him and everything that comes with the package.
Democrats balk at driving their tainted leaders from office only when it might entail a shift in power, yet the GOP stands by their president — despite his successor being a Republican — as his moral depravity becomes ever more apparent. Trump’s cruel and violent personality, long history of racism and assault on American institutions, therefore, must themselves be part of his appeal. Democrats turn on their tainted members; Republicans evidently do not consider Trump to be tainted.
Democrats must stop waiting for when Republicans “come to their senses,” or for them to declare “enough is enough.” The two sides are assessing the president while their moral compasses point toward different poles.
The Virginia Democrats’ political calculus paid off last week. The executive branch they clung to is now empowered by a blue legislature. Republicans, on the other hand, have experienced a steady attrition in state and congressional seats over the course of the three midterm elections following 2016. The Trump brand is driving voters away from his party.
As Mike Pence has a significantly higher net approval rating than President Trump, it could even be politically advantageous to elevate him to the presidency and run him in 2020. The GOP’s inclination to back an unpopular president and risk electoral defeat over switching to a respectable figurehead with far greater national support exposes the daunting truth of this era: Donald Trump defines the Republican Party, not just politically, but morally, too.
Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What Does the Fox Say? runs every other Thursday this semester.