“Does anybody,” Donald J. Trump asked in a tweet last week, “really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!.....” And with that, the world of Republican politics came unglued.
It was enough that he had taken Republican leaders by surprise in cutting a deal on the debt limit with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, but to then reach a meeting of the minds with them on DACA was to turn his back on the anti-immigrant essence of Trumpism. “Trump base is blown up,” tweeted Tea Party kingmaker Steve King (R-IA), “no promise is credible.” “Impeach him,” added pundit Ann Coulter―author of “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome” ― as images of betrayed Trump supporters burning their “Make America Great Again” hats flashed across social media.
It is hard, at a certain level, to understand the rage that Donald Trump’s words evoked. After all, to evince that degree of rage is to suggest not only that you believed Trump’s words, but that you believed there was personal conviction behind them. As Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and others who ran against him pointed out repeatedly over the course of the Republican primaries, Trump would say whatever he needed to say, whenever he needed to say it, to suit his needs at any moment. It was not simply that he could say one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon, but as Cruz observed―and as reflected in Trump’s tweet above ― “Whatever lie he’s telling, at that minute he believes it.” Did Steve King and Ann Coulter forget that for Donald Trump conviction and loyalty are fleeting virtues, that he lives instead for affirmation in the moment?
During the summer of 2016, as Republican leaders in Congress were coming to grips with the inevitability of Donald Trump as their standard-bearer, they convinced themselves that all was for the best. They concluded that should Trump win, they would surely be able drive the agenda, and that they could count on a President Trump to sign whatever bills they put on his desk. And that was no doubt an accurate assessment; yet they failed to consider the converse: what would a President Trump do if they failed to put bills on his desk? Then, as now, it was no secret that Donald Trump is a man with few convictions beyond his determination to win. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell should have realized the peril they were in that afternoon in early May when Trump basked in his Rose Garden celebration of the House passage of legislation repealing Obamacare. Presidents don’t as a matter of course celebrate when just one chamber passes a bill and, at that moment, it should have been clear to them what the consequence might be should they fail in short order to deliver to their erstwhile leader the victory celebrations he so clearly craved.
Trump gave Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell eight months to put bills on his desk for him to sign and, as they accurately surmised at the time of his nomination, he had little or no interest in what the content of those bills might be. Trump was prepared to sign legislation enshrining into law Paul Ryan’s long-touted Better Way Republican agenda, cutting back longstanding federal support for social programs. They could have chosen to pass massive increases in funding for the military, tax cuts for the wealthy, or even put on Trump’s desk healthcare legislation stripping coverage from millions of Trump’s working class supporters. No matter; Trump sat in the Oval Office, pen in hand, ready to go.
But Ryan and McConnell delivered nothing. Instead, in the House in particular, schisms emerged between House Freedom Caucus members determined to deliver on their long-standing small government promises and more moderate members who refused to throw their own constituents under the bus; and neither side was prepared to concede their position in the name of unified Republican rule, much less popping champagne corks with their president in the Rose Garden.
As Fox pundit Sean Hannity observed recently, Republicans have no one to blame but themselves: they forced Donald Trump into the waiting arms of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. For a long-time New York Democrat, Trump played the part of loyal Republican for longer than one might have imagined. When Schumer and Pelosi offered him a deal on the debt ceiling, he agreed, and within a matter of days both chambers of Congress approved the deal by wide majorities. Buoyed by the positive media coverage of his bipartisan success, Trump--who had as a candidate said he would be "very, very strong on the debt limit"--suggested to Schumer that he is open to eliminating the debt ceiling altogether, evoking further howls of protest from the Freedom Caucus. But that was then, and this is now, and Donald Trump is nothing if not a man who lives in the moment.
If Trump wins adulation for his move on the debt ceiling and a looming DACA fix--which is supported by overwhelming majorities of those polled--what might he be susceptible to next? Large majorities--in the range of three or four to one--support increasing taxes on the rich, as well as large the increases in infrastructure spending. What would Trump do if Schumer and Pelosi put a tax deal on the table that includes Steve Bannon's proposal to create a new 44% tax rate on incomes exceeding $5 million, to fund middle class tax cuts along with Ivanka Trump's proposed doubling of the child tax credit? What if Chuck and Nancy--as Trump now affectionately refers to them--offer to trade a cut in the maximum corporate tax rate for Bannon's long-standing proposal for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment program?
Each of these proposals are anathema to Paul Ryan's Better Way and the Republican agenda, but they each enjoy overwhelming public support--and, it is important to note, they are all issues that Trump advocated over the course of his primary campaign. As Trump has watched his own approval ratings decline steadily toward 30% since Inauguration Day, he has to have realized that reversing that trajectory requires that he do things differently.
Like their Republican counterparts, Democratic Party activists are scandalized by what might lie ahead. Schumer and Pelosi are already getting pushback from Resistance opposition to doing anything with or for Donald Trump. A DACA fix, raising taxes on the wealthy and a massive infrastructure program may be long-standing Democrat goals, but party activists' interest first and foremost is to see Donald Trump frog-marched out of the White House. They are loath to see Democrats in Congress offer Trump legislative victories--regardless of what might be achieved--both because they find the very prospect of collaboration with him to be odious, and because it looms to imperil the electoral prospects they imagine in 2018 and 2020.
Meanwhile, activists on the right see a deeper, existential threat to the GOP coalition. For the better part of a half-century, southern and white working class voters have formed the core of the Republican base, notwithstanding the fact that the establishment Republican economic agenda of free trade, tax cuts and cutbacks in social spending have been injurious to those voters' own interests. During the presidential primaries, Donald Trump ran against establishment Republicanism as much as he did against Democrats; he was more Huey Long than Ronald Reagan. Should Trump return to that populist path of the Kingfish and embrace an alliance with Democrats around the contours of tax reform, infrastructure spending, and even--in the worst case--healthcare, his voters might well buy into the idea of a government that delivers the goods, and he could do permanent damage to the Republican coalition built by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
It could be that Donald Trump has a more devious plan in mind. Perhaps his objective is to foment discord and chaos within the Democratic Party by driving wedges between Schumer and Pelosi--old school politicians who remain focused on politics as the art of the possible--and factions that are vying to control the future of the party. But that scenario seems unlikely. While fomenting chaos has proven to be an outcome of Trumpism on the national stage--and it certainly appears to be an objective that Vladimir Putin has had in mind--Donald Trump's motives have always been more transparent and his time horizon more immediate. He simply wants to win; and if Chuck and Nancy can deliver--even against headwinds from within their own party--all manner of outcomes become possible. And that is a possibility that terrifies many in the Democratic and Republican parties alike.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of "FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore."
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.