The structure of the American political landscape is such that the president is the head of his or her party. This is true in both a literal and symbolic capacity. Obviously, the president is the chief executive, meaning he not only commands the greatest degree of functional power, but he also is the most visible and identifiable member of the party. This makes him a figurehead; his conduct and policies shape how the polity perceives the broader party.
That is why character matters. And that is why politicians scramble to disavow rogue politicians whose character and positions go at odds with the party platform, as is now occurring with the ever-growing list of GOP figures who have recanted their faith in Donald Trump’s presidential fitness.
Regardless of the histrionics spouted by over-agitated pundits bent on advancing the conspiracy theory that the GOP is undermining anti-establishment Trump in order to bolster their power as an opposition party under Clinton, this is not a personal vendetta against Trump. This view assumes party can’t be damaged by its own members, when this is obviously not the case.
Is it feckless for GOP members to suddenly find a moral backbone just when votes are on the line? Yes. However, a lot of the figures who are now calling on Trump to step down also told the anti-Trump right which was still campaigning against him even after it appeared he would secure the nomination to sit down and shut up because they were undermining the party’s unity and chance of winning in the general.
The party elite ignored Trump’s flaws as a matter of expediency because, at the time, his inexplicable surge seemed likely to carry them all the way to victory in the general. Then, just as now, it was a matter of fulfilling the most fundamental of human urges—survive.
12 years of consecutive rule by one party begins to feel like a dynasty. It is important to remember that control of the presidency includes the ability to exert power not just over the executive agencies but over the sprawling regulatory state.
The GOP may have Congress, but there’s a lot more latitude in how concretely power is held and exercised here. They are still the opposition party, forced in a position of coalition-building if they want to advance a legislative agenda. And the balance of Congress is less insulated from swellings of populist passion and anger, as the Tea Party wave elections of 2010 and 2014 demonstrate. That power also doesn’t translate as easily to real-world influence, as the impotence of Congress in the wake of executive power and its own in-fighting demonstrate.
The bottom line is this: the GOP has a vested interest in its own survival. However, that survival is not independent of the broader political climate. It is embedded within a political culture that associates, rightly or wrongly, the presidential temperament with the party at large, which impacts down ballot races, even at the state level.
Fear of backlash from constituents who are voting for government officials and ballot initiatives at local, state and federal levels are the reason the GOP is denouncing Trump.