Will Anti-Trump Republicans Support Him With His Unpopular Agenda And Criminal Behavior?

Heather Cox Richardson

On Wednesday, May 22, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who had been the candidate for anti-Trump Republicans, said she will vote for Trump. Haley ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and maintained a steady stream of criticism of him, calling him “unstable,” “unhinged” and “a disaster…for our party.” Since she suspended her campaign in early March, she has continued to poll at around 20% of Republican primary voters. 

There are two ways to look at Haley’s capitulation. It might show that Trump is so strong that he has captured the entire party and is sweeping it before him. In contrast, it might show that Trump is weak, and Haley made this concession to his voters either in hopes of stepping into his place or in a desperate move to cobble the party, whose leaders are keenly aware they are an unpopular minority in the country, together. 

The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war. The last of the establishment Republican leaders who controlled the party before 2016 are trying to wrest control of it back from Trump’s MAGA Republicans, who have taken control of the key official positions. At the same time, Trump’s MAGA voters, while a key part of the Republican base, have pushed the party so far right they have left the majority of Americans—including Republicans—far behind.

Abortion remains a major political problem for Republicans. Trump appointed the three Supreme Court justices who provided the votes to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion, and he has boasted repeatedly that he ended Roe. This pleases his white evangelical base but not the majority of the American people.

According to a recent Pew poll, 63% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while only 36% think it should be illegal in most or all cases. But Republicans are continuing to push unpopular antiabortion legislation. On Thursday, Louisiana lawmakers approved a law classifying mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs commonly used in abortions, as dangerous drugs—a category usually reserved for addictive medications—making it a crime to possess abortion pills without a prescription. 

Louisiana prohibits abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases in which the fetus has a condition incompatible with life. The law requires doctors to get a special license to prescribe the drugs, one of which is used for routine reproductive care as well as abortions. The state would then keep a record of those prescriptions, effectively a database to monitor women’s pregnancies and the doctors who treat them. Louisiana governor Jeff Landry, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure into law. 

Trump has repeatedly promised to weigh in on the mifepristone question but, likely aware that he cannot please both his base and voters, has not done so. On Tuesday, May 21, though, he stepped into a related problem. Since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade, antiabortion activists have begun to talk about contraception as abortion, with some warning that it is “unbiblical.” But in February, 80% of voters polled said that contraception was “deeply important” to them, including 72% of Republican voters. On Tuesday, Trump said he was open to regulating contraception and that his campaign would issue a policy statement on contraception “very shortly.” He later walked back his earlier comments, saying they had been misinterpreted.

On May 19 the same judge who tried to remove mifepristone from the market by rescinding the FDA approval of it, Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, blocked the Biden administration from implementing a new rule that requires sellers at gun shows and online to get licenses and conduct background checks. The rule closes what’s known as the “gun show loophole.” According to the Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy, 86% of Americans want mandatory background checks for all gun purchases. 

Trump himself is a problem for the party. His base is absolutely loyal, but he is a deeply problematic candidate for anyone else. As Susan Glasser outlined in the New Yorker yesterday, in the past week he chickened out of testifying in his ongoing criminal trial for paying hush money to an adult film actress to keep damaging information from voters in 2016 after insisting for weeks that he would. He talked about staying in office for a third term, ran a video promising that the United States will become a “unified Reich” when he wins reelection, and accused President Joe Biden of trying to have him assassinated. He will be 78 in a few weeks and is having trouble speaking.

In addition to his ongoing criminal trial, on Tuesday a filing unsealed in the case of Trump’s retention of classified documents showed that a federal judge, Beryl Howell, believed investigators had “strong evidence” that Trump “intended” to hide those documents from the federal government.

Also revealed were new photographs of Trump’s personal aide Walt Nauta moving document boxes before one of Trump’s lawyers arrived to review what Trump had, along with the information that once Trump realized that the men moving the boxes could be captured on Mar-a-Lago’s security cameras, he allegedly made sure they would avoid the cameras. The new details suggest that prosecutors have more evidence than has been made public. 

This might explain why, as Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley of Rolling Stone reported today, Trump is pressuring Republicans to pass a law shielding presidents from prosecution in state or local courts, moving prosecutions to federal courts where a president could stop them.

Yesterday, Marilyn W. Thompson of ProPublica reported on yet another potentially harmful legal story. There were a number of discrimination and harassment complaints made against the Trump campaign in 2016 and 2020 that Trump tried to keep quiet with nondisclosure agreements. A federal magistrate judge has ordered the Trump campaign to produce a list of the complaints by May 31. Those complaints include the charge that the 2016 campaign paid women less than men and that Trump kissed a woman without her consent. 

Trump’s current behavior is not likely to reassure voters. 

Yesterday he wrote on social media that “Evan Gershkovich, the Reporter from The Wall Street Journal, who is being held by Russia, will be released almost immediately after the Election, but definitely before I assume Office. He will be HOME, SAFE, AND WITH HIS FAMILY. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, will do that for me, but not for anyone else, and WE WILL BE PAYING NOTHING!”

There is no good interpretation of this post. If Trump does have that sort of leverage with Putin, why? And why not use it immediately? Is he openly signaling to Putin to ignore the Biden administration’s ongoing negotiations for Gershkovich’s release? Trevor Reed, who was arrested in Russia in 2019 when visiting his girlfriend in Moscow, noted: “As a former wrongful detainee in Russia, I would just like to remind everyone that President Trump had the ability to get myself and Paul Whelan out of Russia for years and chose not to. I would be skeptical of any claims about getting Evan Gershkovich back in a day.”  

Reed was freed in 2022 as part of a prisoner swap arranged by the Biden administration. 

Last night, at a rally in New York, Trump accepted the endorsement of alleged gang members, rappers Michael Williams (Sheff G) and Tegan Chambers (Sleepy Hallow). In 2023 the two men were indicted with 30 other people on 140 counts, including murder, attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms, and at least a dozen shootings. Sheff G was released from jail in April after posting a $1.5 million bond. 

Then, Trump’s people claimed that 25,000 people turned out for the rally, but they requested a permit for only 3,500, and only 3,400 tickets were issued. Aerial shots suggest there were 800–1,500 people there. 

MAGA voters don’t care about any of this, apparently, but non-MAGA Republicans and Independents do. And this might be behind Haley’s promise to vote for Trump. The unpopularity of the MAGA faction might allow Haley to step in if Trump crashes and burns, so long as she kowtows to Trump and his base. Or it might be calculated to try to repair the rift in hopes that the party can cobble together some kind of unity by November. As The Shallow State noted on X, Haley’s announcement showed that “Trump is fragile.”

But Haley’s statement that she will vote for Trump does not necessarily mean her voters will follow her. Deputy political director for the Biden campaign Juan Peñalosa met with Haley supporters in a prescheduled zoom call hours after Haley’s announcement. On Thursday afternoon the campaign issued a press release titled: “To Haley Voters: There’s a Home For You on Team Biden-Harris.”

MAGA Republicans know their agenda is unpopular, and they are working to seize power through voter suppression, violence, gerrymandering, and packing the legal system. But there are signs a bipartisan defense of democracy may be gathering strength.  

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