Republican Impeachment Crisis: Exit, Voice, Or Loyalty

When it comes to Trump, Republicans choose to either leave the party or twist themselves into sycophancy. We rarely see them speak out and stand firm.
President Donald Trump speaks during an event after the passage of the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act Bill” on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump speaks during an event after the passage of the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act Bill” on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

The impeachment of President Donald Trump and his impending trial in the US Senate has created a crisis atmosphere in the GOP. Fortunately for those of us observing these events unfold, the late economist Albert Hirschman had valuable observations to make about such situations in his book “Exit Voice, and Loyalty”:

“Under any economic, social or political system, individuals, business firms, and organizations in general are subject to lapses from efficient, rational, law-abiding, virtuous, or otherwise functional behavior.”

Hirschman believed that individual members of organizations in such a condition had essentially two choices: Exit, abandoning the ship, or voice, expressing opposition to the organization’s current course of action and thereby encourage its change of direction. Of course, there is a third alternative, remaining silent, offering unquestioned loyalty, and going down with the ship – if need be.

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Let’s consider the present situation of the Trump executives in his administration, Republican members of the US Congress, and GOP voters. We could maintain a null hypothesis and contend no such crisis exists. After all, the Republicans hold the White House, command a majority in the US Senate, hold a majority of state governorships, and have been successful in tilting the Supreme Court in a “conservative” direction. And, if the late California legislator Jesse Unruh was right in saying that “money is the mother’s milk of politics”, the GOP is virtually swimming in dollars, prepared to spend vast sums on Trump’s re-election campaign. And in terms of electoral support, Trump and his fellow Republicans have managed to win strong approval from heretofore Democratic white working-class voters. What crisis?

The answer is that presidential impeachment is an exceptionally unusual mechanism in American political history. In a previous case, to which this one bears a resemblance, Richard Nixon’s impending impeachment and resignation in 1973-74, more than two dozen members of Nixon’s administration and re-election officials went to prison for perjury obstruction of justice, and a substantial list of other crimes. The president’s closest advisers along with two Attorneys General went to prison. Careers were ruined. In the succeeding national elections, the Democrats expanded their majorities in both the House and Senate. The Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, won the next presidential election over Nixon’s Republican successor Gerald Ford.

During Nixon’s impeachment crisis, leading figures in the GOP exercised ‘voice’ in speaking out against Nixon’s Watergate-related criminality. After hearing the evidence, 7 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach. Such GOP senators as Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater came to the conclusion Nixon had to go and told him so, leading to his resignation. In Trump’s case there has been little by way of ‘voice’ – at least so far.

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“Exit” has been the predominant response to Trump’s wrongdoing. With the exception of a single administration senior official who published a highly critical book under the name “anonymous”, most members of Trump’s administration have chosen to “exit” rather than express opposition to the President’s policies or decision-making style. Even after leaving office national security officials, domestic policy, and legal advisers have largely remained mute or highly circumspect.

The same generalization applies to Republican members of the House and Senate. With the impending 2020 national elections, an unprecedented number of GOP congressmen have decided against seeking re-election. The one Republican congressman who dissented from his party’s pro-Trump consensus, Rep. Justin Amash, decided to “exit” the GOP caucus rather than “voice” dissent from within it. He now serves as an independent.

The same lack of “voice” applies to Republican voters. Trump’s support in the electorate has shown little oscillation over his 3 years in office. The polls have reported the President’s ‘approval’ rating as moving between roughly 40 to 44 percent over the course of his term in office. This substantial minority of ‘low education’ voters appears to be exceptionally loyal to Trump. How can we explain this absence of “voice” among Republicans in the Trump era?

Why Are Republicans So Loyal To Trump?

The answers may be found in the work of two organizational theorists, Chester Barnard (1886-1961) and James Q. Wilson (1931-2012). They both posed the question of why individuals choose to join and contribute effort to an organization on a largely voluntary basis? Their answers were a combination of tangible and intangible incentives.

In thinking about the GOP’s present situation, we should consider this mix from the point of view of appointees in the executive branch, members of Congress and the party’s voters.

So far as the executive is concerned, we should note there has been an unusually high rate of turnover among Trump’s appointees, the office of the president and cabinet-level officers have come and gone with considerable frequency. National Security Adviser’s position has been held at a pace of more than one a year since Trump’s 2017 inauguration. The incentives for staying on the job seem relatively clear involving the prestige and apparent influence that goes with the title. We might add to these intangibles the possibility that the appointee might have a number of policy goals they hope to achieve while in their post. (Betsy De Vos, the current secretary of education, was a severe critic of public education before her appointment.)

There are other cases though where the incentives appear more tangible; so that Trump’s choices of Environmental Protection Administrator (EPA) have gone to individuals opposed to the agency’s ostensible purpose. They have come from and intend to return to positions in the coal, oil and petrochemical industries and use their government positions to make life easier for those businessmen running things.

But why the conspicuous lack of “voice” from members of the administration who have resigned or been dismissed by the President? To be fair, In a few cases, notably ex-FBI director James Comey, former executives have spoken out. But this willingness has been the exception, not the rule. Even former officials who have been subpoenaed by congressional committees have been willing to violate the law, apparently, because he urged them to do so.

Once again, the incentives at play here are a mix of tangible and intangible. Former officials are aware that their career prospects will likely be adversely affected by openly criticizing Trump. In the Washington area and beyond there are a substantial collection of prosperous “conservative” think-tanks, university institutes, lobbying firms, and other private organizations sponsored by wealthy Republican donors. If the former Trump official hopes to be offered a position at one of these organizations, he or she has a tangible incentive for staying silent and remaining loyal.

There is also an intangible consideration. Trump has a tendency to heap verbal abuse on appointees and even ex-members of his administration who cross him. The experience of former Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions is illustrative. The target of abuse and contempt (Trump called him inept, “Elmer Fudd”, a cartoon character, while still in office), Sessions has declined to retaliate even after being replaced. Sessions is now running to return to his Senate seat in Alabama. Few individuals wish to be described as fools, traitors, deranged, etc. on Twitter and other media outlets if they have the temerity to criticize Trump. Better to slink away than become the target of Trump’s contempt and hostility.

Approximately the same set of incentives holds for Republican members of Congress. Trump has even attacked deceased members of the House and Senate. The deceased: Senator John McCain and Congressman John Dingell have been targets of the President’s remorseless hostility even after they have gone to their graves. Most living GOP legislators know enough to avoid “voice”. They enjoy the solidarity incentive of group membership that would be withdrawn if they develop the reputation as a ‘maverick’ critic of Trump’s conduct. If you want to get along, far better to go along, even if you have to hold your nose in doing so.

For most GOP legislators seeking re-election, there are more tangible incentives at work for avoiding “voice”. Fear of being “primaried” is one of them. In most strongly Republican congressional districts and deep red states (e.g. Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina) speaking out against the President or expressing support for impeachment will get you in trouble. Recently a Republican congressman from northern Nevada, Rep. Mark Amodei, told a reporter he’d examine the evidence before making a decision on impeachment. The Congressman was immediately condemned for his betrayal by members of the GOP state committee and threatened with a more “conservative” challenger in the state’s coming primary balloting. The message was: keep your mouth shut or else.

The ‘or else’ may very well also involve fears of condemnation by Sean Hannity and other hosts on the Fox News channel, the Rush Limbaugh radio show or any of the dozens of “conservative” talk radio commentators on-air throughout the country.

Lastly, we have Trump’s electorate, particularly its white working-class element, to consider. Tangible benefits for casting their ballots for the New York billionaire seem pretty meager. Pay increases for hourly workers during the past three years have been modest, at best. Unemployment is low by previous standards. Both are tangible pluses. On the other hand, these benefits may be outweighed by intangible incentives for voting Trump a second term of office. Trump’s repeated attempt to build a wall along the Mexican border has strong appeal to voters moved by fears of the country being overwhelmed by illegal immigrants. The President’s thinly veiled or sometimes explicit expression of white working-class resentments against racial or ethnic minorities and, almost simultaneously, his frequent attacks on the highly educated elements in the population offers incentives for re-electing him in November 2020.

Opinion // Impeachment / Mitch McConnell / Republican Party