WASHINGTON ― What does a Party of Donald Trump look like?
As a second mainstream Republican chooses to leave the Senate rather than run for re-election in a party led by President Trump, an organization molded by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan appears to be in an identity crisis that typically afflicts a party out of power, not one that controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“What party?” laughed Rick Tyler, a longtime GOP consultant who worked for the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas last year. “It’s hard to say that it’s anyone’s party right now. It is both intellectually and ideologically unmoored.”
Tyler said Trump’s inability to focus on legislation, or even understand it, makes it virtually impossible for him to lead his own party, let alone the nation. “He doesn’t have a core set of beliefs. He never has. He’s going to believe in what’s good for him at the moment,” Tyler said. “The president is supposed to be the North Star in all of these things. And he’s just a constellation. And we’ve got no way of knowing where he’s going to be in six months.”
That possibility was raised as a warning by a number of Republicans as Trump rose in the polls in the summer and autumn of 2015, even as many party leaders argued the opposite: that Trump, as a nominee and a president, would come to adopt the values and objectives of their party.
Instead, though, Trump has shown little interest in Republican values or even much loyalty to longstanding members of the party whose structure got him elected to the White House.
“Trump is pretty cavalier about all the work and sacrifice involved over the years to win Congress and now the White House,” said Texas political consultant Matt Mackowiak.
Trump is pretty cavalier about all the work and sacrifice involved over the years to win Congress and now the White House. Matt Mackowiak, Texas political consultant
As president, Trump has routinely attacked members of his own party, in speeches, media interviews and, most ubiquitously, on Twitter. He frequently blames Republicans for failing to pass legislation, as if they are some group he has no affiliation with.
Now, just nine months into his term, both Tennessee’s Bob Corker and Arizona’s Jeff Flake have decided not to seek re-election to the Senate next year ― and are openly calling Trump a menace to the nation.
“We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal,” Flake said from the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. “And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.”
Corker earlier this month criticized Trump for running the White House as if it were a “reality show” and possibly leading the country into “World War III” with his careless language.
On Tuesday, he told CNN that Trump’s primary achievement would be debasing the office. “He’s obviously not going to rise to the occasion as president,” Corker said.
Trump’s staff and supporters argue that Trump is doing what voters wanted him to do. “I think he feels like America is winning,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday as she dismissed Corker and Flake as senators who were likely to lose re-election anyway.
And former top White House aide Steve Bannon, whose nationalist agenda and language were adopted by Trump during the course of the general election campaign, has been cheerfully promising to find challengers to most incumbent Republican senators in his battle against “the establishment.” He has also taken credit for the victory of former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore over Luther Strange in a Senate primary runoff. He backed Moore while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump backed Strange, who was appointed to Jeff Sessions’ former Senate seat when Sessions became Trump’s attorney general.
“McConnell and the GOP Establishment have sown the wind — now be prepared to reap the whirlwind,” Bannon told the website Axios.
That sort of talk, though, makes John Weaver laugh out loud. “Roy Moore was going to win that race regardless,” said the longtime consultant who ran Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s Republican presidential run in 2016. “Bannon had not a goddamned thing to do with it.”
Weaver has a much simpler explanation as to how his party has gotten to where it is: “We got a guy who hijacked our party, and the country’s in trouble because of it.”
Weaver points to Trump’s entry into the race in June 2015, when party leaders ― fearful that Trump’s near universal name recognition, thanks to a hit TV reality show and his bank account, would let him mount a third-party run ― treated him with kid gloves. Most of his rivals for the nomination, meanwhile, assumed his unorthodox views and schoolyard behavior would bring him down, and therefore there was no need to attack him.
We have a special obligation, because the nut job is from our party. It’s our responsibility to go round up the crazy uncle. John Weaver, Republican political consultant
Those two factors instead combined to give Trump an imprimatur of party legitimacy, which helped him consolidate support as the field narrowed.
Now, Weaver said, he and other Republicans need to clean up the mess. “We have a special obligation, because the nut job is from our party. It’s our responsibility to go round up the crazy uncle.”
But some top party leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the de facto head of their party, argue that the country is too big and the federal bureaucracy and judiciary too slow-moving for any one president, even one as reckless as Trump, to make major changes, even if he were to serve two terms.
They point out that, despite all his bluster and angry tweets, Trump has served nine months without a single major legislative accomplishment, has been unable to pull troops from Afghanistan or withdraw from NATO, and has seen some of his executive actions tied up in court. This is proof, in their view, that the system of checks and balances is working.
One senior Republican National Committee member, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, said Trump in the end managed something that the previous two nominees could not. He won. “Our job is to win,” he said.
Tyler, Cruz’s former aide, hears that sentiment a lot and cannot disagree more. “The Republican Party is not its former self. It sacrificed itself for winning. I love winning. But what did we win? What did he win? He gets the use of Air Force One?”
Mackowiak said it is too soon to guess what happens to the party after Trump. “A lot of that depends on how the Trump era ends.”
Whether that is a consequence of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling, a decision not to seek a second term or a successful re-election, Mackowiak said, it will determine if Republicanism will survive Trumpism.
“And nobody knows that yet,” he said.