For Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, it was the way President Donald Trump “debases” the country.
For former President George W. Bush, it was the “casual cruelty” Trump has injected into the national discourse.
And for Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, in a dramatic, full-throated rebuke of the president from the Senate floor, it was the “coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top.”
Prominent retiring or retired Republicans this week have taken turns talking tough on Trump — and have been praised by critics of the president who have been hungry for someone, anyone, in his party to stand up to him.
Notably, though, Trump’s conservative critics have focused largely on his unpresidential behavior, vicious personal attacks and unhinged rhetoric — not on his proposals or his administration’s policies.
“We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country,” Flake said Tuesday, announcing his retirement from the Senate. “The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency ... None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal.”
Republicans have long felt more comfortable venting about Trump’s language and behavior than his actual politics.
In March 2016, months before Trump became his party’s nominee, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “we cannot enable” the kind of toxic rhetoric Trump engaged in during the campaign.
He has continued to scold Trump for his lack of decency since his unlikely election, at one point saying his language was “vile” and “unpresidential” in the wake of a misogynistic Twitter tirade against MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski.
“Obviously, I don’t see that as an appropriate comment,” Ryan said after the June rant. “What we’re trying to do around here is improve the civility and tone of the debate, and this obviously does not do that.”
But for all their finger-wagging about his behavior, Ryan and other Republicans have consistently declined to take aim at Trump for his agenda, as the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri pointed out in a satirical column after the Trump-Brzezinski dustup.
“Everything else the president has done is fine — the continued attacks on the media’s legitimacy, the carelessness toward history and diplomacy, the harmful rhetoric about Muslims, the — well, it is all fine,” Petri joked. “This is too much, though, and I am putting my foot down, here.”
“I am thus withdrawing my support for everything but the legislation Trump would like us to pass,” she continued.
The reason Trump’s Republican critics tend to focus on his behavior could be because they largely agree with the president’s agenda, even though the majority disapprove of the way he acts, as Pew found in an August poll.
According to Pew, only 34% of Republican voters approve of Trump’s conduct. But nearly 70% of those same voters say they either agree with “many, not all” or “all or nearly all” of Trump’s positions on the issues.
In other words, they like Trump’s substance — they’re just not all that crazy about his style.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t raise legitimate concerns about the president’s lack of civility.
Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M and an expert on the history of political rhetoric, said in a phone interview that a certain “decorum” is necessary for “productive public discourse.”
According to Mercieca, who is writing a book on Trump, the president has not behaved with that kind of “dignity” and has capitalized on his provocative rhetoric, creating the impression that “political politeness or correctness is just public relations speak.”
“He’s always argued that people should talk the way he talks, and if you don’t talk like Trump, you’re corrupt. That just shows you don’t really say what you think,” she said. “I think Trump has been able to take advantage of that.”
While Trump’s behavior is getting more vociferous call-outs from some prominent Republicans, it seems unlikely that it will inspire much change in him, Mercieca said.
This is partly because the most vocal Trump critics in the GOP are either retiring or facing uncertain futures on Capitol Hill; Corker and Flake are retiring and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is fighting brain cancer.
Another reason is that other Republicans — who are said to privately hold similar concerns about Trump as Corker and Flake — have largely opted to keep their frustrations with the president “in the family.” They gave Trump a standing ovation at a GOP unity event Tuesday and mostly talked around reporters’ questions about the sharp criticisms Flake and Corker had leveled at the president throughout the day.
“At the end of the day the goal is for us to keep the focus on the American people and tax reform that will help them keep more of their money,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said.
Meanwhile, the administration brushed off its critics — Trump, of course in a tweet, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a press briefing in which she described Corker and Flake’s remarks as, of all things, “petty.”
“I noticed that a lot of the language, I didn’t think, was befitting of the Senate floor,” the press secretary said of Flake’s speech.