The mainstream, “establishment” Republican leadership made a cynical calculation to tolerate Donald Trump’s dangerous faults, believing they could use him to rubber-stamp their long-sought conservative legislative agenda. They made a bargain with a con-man, and now he has betrayed them.
His deal last week with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on debt limits and disaster spending is a huge political betrayal. But make no mistake: for Trump, it’s good politics.
Americans are fed up with gridlock and dysfunction in the Washington DC “swamp,” and they blame Republicans as much as Democrats. Furthermore, the legislation which might pass by making deals with Democrats polls well across the political spectrum.
The White House has even hinted at much broader cooperation on issues that are anathema to mainline conservatives – legislation to remedy the Daca dilemma, repealing the debt limit, which regularly puts us in danger of default, disaster aid for hurricane victims. There are rumors of some cooperation on tax reform (which give Democrats real leverage on tax breaks for billionaires.) And although nobody will admit it publicly, there is even whispered talk about fixing the problems with Obamacare.
Meanwhile, back in the “swamp”, the establishment Republican leadership, hamstrung by their own caucus’ fractious fringe, The Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee, cannot deliver on any of this, even if they wanted to. But Trump’s loyal base wants action.
Voters are angry at Congress, and most polling reveals that even Republican base voters support a much more progressive agenda than the party orthodoxy allows. (See here, here and here.) This empowers Trump to unhitch himself from people like Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other establishment Republican party leaders and venture forth on his own, making deals across the aisle, catering to his base and building a cult of personality broader and more powerful than the Republican party brand.
However frightening the prospect of “Dear Leader” Trump might be, if he can find enough common ground with Democrats and Republican moderates, we might just see a breakthrough on a whole host of important legislation.
If government actually started to function again, it might ease voters’ frustration levels and lower hyper-partisan political temperatures across the spectrum. All things being equal, that’s all to the good. But all things are not equal.
Trump’s calculation ignores the one truly existential threat he faces: Russia. Trump craves adulation – praise to feed his outsized ego – and to get it he’s happy to betray friend and foe alike. But he also desperately needs the partisan protection of Congressional Republicans to shield him from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion and obstruction of justice, which is gathering steam every day.
So far, Republicans in Congress have been doing just that. Despite the fact that most of them either openly dislike, distrust or disdain Trump, they have been careful to support their fellow Republican in the White House. But now he has stung them with the worst wound of all: betraying his own party. If he keeps it up, all bets are off.
There was already a constant undercurrent of murmuring among Republicans that they would be better off with Pence. Now that Trump has monumentally pissed them off, there’s no reason to pretend anymore. If he keeps siding with Democrats over his own party, Mueller would be doing them a favor.
In the short run, Trump’s gambit may be popular with voters, and if we’re lucky, it might even do some real bi-partisan good. But when time rolls around for Congress to judge “high crimes and misdemeanors,” just watch the Republicans abandon him.
- Joe McLean is president of the Crockett Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank
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