In the months leading up to and following Donald Trump receiving the official nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016, it was obvious that Democratic politicians opposed him, but, more surprisingly, we saw members from within his own party calling for him to step down or stating publicly that they would not vote for him. If, according to authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, this is one of the main ways political elites can help to maintain democracy, why did it fail?
To answer this question, we need to look at which Congressmen withdrew their support for Trump. Looking at an article from the Washington Post, 46 Congressmen—including former supporters of his—either tweeted or released official statements stating they would not be voting for Trump, largely due to “the abhorrent comments” he made at many of his campaign rallies. Nearly all of the Congressmen who refused to back Trump were from Republican states, so one would assume their constituents would follow suit and also not vote for him. As Levitysky and Ziblatt mention, when co-party members oppose a rising demagogue, it is often beneficial to put political differences aside and ally with their rivals, in order to preserve democracy. However, none of the 46 politicians mentioned in the above article endorsed the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. In fact, many of them either decided not to vote entirely (unless Mike Pence became the nominee) or put their opposition to Trump to the side in order to defeat Clinton and the Democratic Party. Republican politicians did the exact opposite of what was needed to keep a demagogue out of the White House.
Possibly more important than the politicians who initially refused to support Trump, are the politicians whose support never wavered, despite the many crude comments he made. Many of these politicians are big names within the Republican Party, including Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, former presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Charles Grassley. Because of their celebrity-like status within the party, their ongoing support for then-presidential nominee Donald Trump carried much influence and persuasion onto the voters, giving Trump the legitimacy he needed to be truly considered the Republican candidate.
Would it have made a difference if both big and small name Republicans stayed rooted in their stances against Trump throughout the entirety of his campaign and election? It seems unlikely, given how popular he was in the Rust Belt. Many residents in the Rust Belt responded so positively to Trump’s populism because they felt resentful towards politics and rich political elites after the loss of local industries, and wanted to see things shaken up. It seems as if those fed up by the way government had been working for decades would have needed more than the denunciation of Trump by their representatives to sway their votes and keep Trump winning enough votes to become nominee; they would have needed representatives who actually represented them long before the populist demagogue that is Donald Trump came onto the scene.