Bookman: Republicans’ fear of Trump keeps others off primary ballots

The U.S. Senate Wednesday voted down two articles of impeachment brought against President Donald Trump. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If any Georgian Republicans are feeling a little queasy about Donald Trump and the direction that he’s taking their party and their country, they won’t have a chance to express it at the primary ballot box. That option has been slammed shut.

In a quiet decision earlier this month, the state GOP’s executive committee rejected requests from William Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, and Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman from Illinois, to appear on the 2020 presidential primary ballot. The only name allowed to appear on the ballot, the only choice that Georgia Republicans will have, is Donald J. Trump.

Similar steps are being taken all over the country, as part of a concerted effort to silence what remains of dissent in the party. So far, Republicans in ten states have ensured that primary voters will have no opportunity to express displeasure against their nominee. Minnesota, like Georgia, allowed only Trump’s name to be entered into nomination. Eight other states, including South Carolina, have canceled Republican primaries or caucuses altogether to prevent opposition from surfacing.

GOP officials in North Carolina and Michigan have also tried to bar his opponents from the ballot, but have so far failed. Even in Massachusetts, where Weld holds the record for largest margin of victory in a governor’s race, officials in his own party tried hard but failed to keep him off the primary ballot.

In the past, Weld and Walsh have run and won elections at a fairly high level, but this isn’t about fear of their candidacies because they pose no real threat to Trump’s dominance. They can’t raise much money and they garner little media attention. Even if they could afford to pay staff, talented and ambitious people in the party know better than to tarnish their futures by joining an anti-Trump campaign. In effect, Weld and Walsh are protest candidates, but they are legitimate protest candidates, trying to use the process to beckon people back to the Republican Party as it used to be, or at least what they thought it used to be, before Trump.

That would be the party that once saw Russia as our primary challenger, that valued democracies over dictators, that celebrated free trade and family values, that thought of itself at least theoretically as the party of Lincoln. (In one recent poll, a majority of Republicans ranked Trump ahead of Lincoln as the best Republican president in history, and the once-venerated Ronald Reagan seems all but forgotten. That’s amazing).

What’s driving this trend isn’t fear of Weld or Walsh, it’s Republicans’ fear of Trump and of each other. We have a president who tolerates nothing less than total loyalty, who labels any expression of dissent or resistance as treason, both to him and to the country. So when state party leaders face a choice between demonstrating loyalty to Trump by banning all challengers, or loyalty to the small-d democratic process by allowing those challengers, it’s troubling but not surprising to see them choose loyalty to Trump.

In announcing their decision to allow only Trump on the ballot here in Georgia, state GOP chairman David Shaffer said the vote by the party’s executive committee had been unanimous. Because of course it was. Who would dare to take the other side?

In a normal world, it would be possible to both support Trump and support the right of party members to have a choice, but we don’t live in that world any more. In this world, the Republican Party is held together mainly by the knowledge that holding together is all they have and all they can do to fend off disaster, and so they do hold together, grimly, for as long as they can.