On Thursday, President Donald Trump tweeted this: “Do not underestimate the UNITY within the Republican Party!”
Which is sort of like randomly telling someone who didn’t ask how much money you have or how smart you are. Chances are you don’t have all that much money and you aren’t that smart. (Unrelated: I am very, very, very smart. My mom always tells me that.)
Trump’s overcompensation is seemingly meant to tamp down chatter that the GOP is in the midst of a war for its soul. “Imploding,” is how Hillary Clinton described the GOP during an appearance at Yale University Wednesday night.
EVERYTHING IS FINE!, Trump is saying. Nothing to see here!
That is, of course, not accurate. Already this week we’ve seen GOP Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona blast Trump as an irresponsible and dangerous leader. Last week Arizona Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush offered critiques of their own of Trumpism – loosely defined for these purposes as a mix of populism, nationalism and anti-PC talk with a smidge of media scapegoating thrown in.
Meanwhile, former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is actively recruiting primary challengers against GOP Senate incumbents up for reelection in 2018 and promising an all-out war on the establishment.
Today, the Washington Post reported that the establishment is already planning a series of strikes against Bannon. Here’s the key bit:
“More than a year ahead of the 2018 congressional contests, a super PAC aligned with McConnell (R-Ky.) revealed plans to attack Bannon personally as it works to protect GOP incumbents facing uphill primary fights. The effort reflects the growing concern of Republican lawmakers over the rise of anti-establishment forces and comes amid escalating frustration over President Trump’s conduct, which has prompted a handful of lawmakers to publicly criticize the president.”
This is a civil war. The governing wing of the Republican party (smaller government, less regulation and lower taxes but a baseline willingness to compromise) is battling the Trump wing. And, right now, the Trump wing is winning – bigly.
Consider Thursday’s vote in the House approving a $4 trillion budget that is estimated to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. They did so because under Trump the focus is now on providing the country with tax cuts which, according to the White House’s math, will more than make up for the projected growth in the deficit.
That’s a stunning sign of just how much Republicans have changed in just the last seven years. Remember that House Republicans steamed to the majority in the 2010 midterms behind the strength of the tea party movement, which was formed with the express purpose of protesting the growth of government – and deficits – under President Barack Obama.
There was a time not so long ago when lots and lots of Republicans on Capitol Hill were leery of approving disaster relief dollars unless they were offset by spending cuts elsewhere so as not to increase the deficit. That guiding principle has been obliterated by Trump.
Then there is the politics, which, at this point, looks like a rout for the Trump forces.
Let’s start with Flake and Corker. There’s no question that their critiques of Trump have driven the conversation in Washington – and politics more generally. And, maybe, they embolden other Republican elected officials to speak out.
But, both of them gave up in the face of the Trump takeover. Flake, in particular, had his hand forced by his outspoken Trump opposition. His poll numbers suggested that winning a primary against a Trump-aligned candidate would have been very difficult, a fact he acknowledged in his retirement speech.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican party – the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things,” Flake said.
Say what you will about how principled the decisions made by Flake and Corker were but the simple reality is that the likeliest scenario is that both men are replaced by Republicans far more willing to fall in line with Trump. In Arizona, Jeff DeWit, who was on staff of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, is seen as a potential frontrunner if he decides to get into the race. In Tennessee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn is the early favorite for the GOP nod and has been a steady supporter of Trump.
Then there’s what happened in Alabama’s Republican Senate runoff last month. The governing wing of the party (+ Trump) lined up behind appointed Sen. Luther Strange. Bannon and the rest of the Trump coalition (sans Trump) sided with former Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Moore crushed Strange – riding a message very similar to Trump’s in 2016: Political correctness is killing this country, liberals think they know better than you (but they don’t) and you can’t trust the media.
Trump’s decision to endorse Strange has complicated the analysis of which side in the GOP civil war really won in Alabama. It shouldn’t. Yes, Trump endorsed Strange and even campaigned for him. But, in terms of tone and issues, Moore is a born and bred Trumpite. And, when Strange lost, reports suggested Trump was deeply unhappy that he wasn’t on the winning side and angry that McConnell has allegedly led him to believe that the race was closer than it wound up being.
Want another sign of why the Trump side is winning this war? How many non-retiring Republican senators (or House members) have spoken out against Trump? Whose taken the lead of Corker and Flake? McCain doesn’t really count; he has always fashioned himself a maverick and is facing down brain cancer. While the likes of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse and Maine Sen. Susan Collins have been critical of Trump, they’ve not gone anywhere near what Corker, Flake and McCain have said.
Why? Because they’re afraid of the Trump wing of the party! There’s a chunk of anti-Trump (or never Trump) people within the GOP ranks. But, it’s way less than half. Which means that if you speak out against Trump, you better be ready to deal with the political fallout. And, very few Republican elected officials want to end up like Flake.
So, yes, this is a war. But, right now, it’s a pretty lopsided result. The Trump forces are dominating.