Even in an administration that is always breaking new ground in terms of unorthodox presidential behavior, Wednesday’s Oval Office ambush was a shocker. At a meeting with congressional leaders that the Republicans thought was merely a photo op, President Trump abandoned his party and sided with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a deal to temporarily extend the debt-ceiling limit. That enabled Trump to avoid any partisan squabble this month that might have interfered with funding hurricane relief. But it also demonstrated his complete indifference to Republican objectives, since it set up another confrontation with the Democrats at the end of the year over the debt ceiling and likely made it much harder to pass a tax-reform package.
Congressional Republicans were outraged. Some conservatives who have been warning GOP voters that Trump was a closet liberal said, “I told you so.” Some spoke of Trump’s burning his bridges with the party’s grass roots or of an open revolt. Even the Trumpist Breitbart proclaimed “Welcome to the Swamp,” over a picture of the president with Pelosi and Schumer.
While Trump’s overall popularity continues to fall, the people who turn out to cheer him at rallies and who were responsible for his routing of his Republican rivals in the 2016 primaries aren’t going to abandon him because he stabbed McConnell and Ryan in the back. The Trump movement, to the extent that one can dignify it with that term, was never about any ideology, let alone conservatism. Neither Trump nor some of his most ardent backers had any interest in the Republican party that they seized in a hostile takeover. If he has no compunction about undermining the congressional Republicans he ostensibly needed to get his legislative agenda passed, it’s because, at least as far as his most committed supporters are concerned, he is the object of a cult of personality, not the leader of a political party.
In any conventional presidency, the White House would work closely with its party’s congressional leadership on key legislative issues. But despite his vocal disappointment about the failure to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill this summer, Trump was largely AWOL during the battle for votes, avoiding the normal give and take with members of the House and Senate that might have secured his objective. Since then he has publicly feuded with McConnell and made it clear that he blames everyone but himself for this failure.
If Trump was willing to give the Democrats everything they wanted, it’s not because, as some conservatives have always suspected, he’s a closet liberal. It’s because he’s in business for himself. Trump wants to be seen getting things done, so, if a three-month debt-ceiling deal will prevent partisan squabbling from interfering with hurricane relief, he’ll do it, even if it strengthens the Democrats’ ability to thwart tax reform, budget cuts, or even funding for the border wall he wants to build.
In theory, that ought to make your average Trump voter as mad at the president as Mitch McConnell is. But it won’t.
The key reason is that Trump’s base despises GOP congressional leaders, in some cases more than they do the Democrats. The venom from the Trump base toward McConnell and Ryan as well as other prominent GOP critics of the president, such as John McCain, on social media routinely damns them all as fake Republicans or even traitors who deserve imprisonment. Indeed, with a sidelined Hillary Clinton no longer available as a target of their vituperation, the desire of Trump’s fans to “lock up” their idol’s foes now seems to be focused solely on Republicans. That the irony of calling a war hero like McCain a traitor is completely lost on Trump backers tells you all you need to know about their blind loyalty to the president and complete indifference to anything other than his interests.
The same is true of Trump’s media cheerleaders, such as Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs. He reacted to Trump’s embrace of the Democrats as being praiseworthy precisely because it cut Speaker Ryan off at the knees. He seems to think anything that undermines GOP leaders is a triumph for Trump, no matter what it means in terms of legislation. For him, McConnell and Ryan are RINOs who must be destroyed, even though the impact of Trump’s deal helps liberals and will it make it harder to maintain the tough stand on immigration Dobbs wants.
Trump’s election has been widely diagnosed as a symptom of the breakdown in trust in politicians and the political system. Republicans may have thought the populist wave that Trump rode to the presidency was a manifestation of anger about specific issues. They didn’t understand that the natural alternative to a dysfunctional system run by ideological politicians like McConnell and Ryan isn’t an outsider who will be more faithful to the values GOP voters have always supported, but rather a leader whose appeal is entirely personal. The base’s trust in Trump isn’t predicated on a belief that he will be more skillful at advancing conservative issues; it’s rooted in their desire to burn the system down and replace it with one led by someone who is not merely untainted by past failures but also unencumbered by adherence to the traditional values that the political class cherishes.
The president’s fans will applaud his deals because what they want is a Trump government, not a Republican or conservative one, and anything that can be touted as an accomplishment for him, whether aid to victims of storms or the government’s being allowed to continue to function, is a triumph for their man.
Trump’s long-term problem is that it is the Democrats who are playing him for a sucker, not the other way around.
Nor will a possible betrayal on immigration — the one issue that seems to really motivate the Trump base — damage him. If Congress doesn’t pass a solution to the DACA issue that will give legal status to illegal aliens brought here as children, Trump has already threatened to act on his own as Obama did. Or he might again cut a deal with Democrats on the issue — to exchange something his base would call amnesty if it were proposed by anyone else — for some border-security funding that he will pretend is a step toward the wall he wants but almost certainly will never get. If Trump is tough on the illegals, the faithful will cheer his toughness. If he helps them, his backers will cheer his compassion and ability to make deals.
Trump’s long-term problem is that it is the Democrats who are playing him for a sucker, not the other way around. Trump’s maneuver ignores the zero-sum nature of the game he’s playing. Any attempt to govern in cooperation with the Democrats will ultimately fail, because their goal is nothing short of the president’s destruction. Trump fans may rage at Ryan all they want, but if White House maneuvers lead to someone else being Housespeaker in January 2019, the replacement will be Pelosi, not a Trumpist Republican, and that will mean impeachment.
But that is a battle for another day. At the moment, all many of Trump’s supporters want is to see his critics ground down in the dust. Cults of personality aren’t about parties or partisanship. The GOP can only sit back and watch and wait to see how long it will take for the Democrats to bring him, and hope for conservative governance, down.
– Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.