Donald Trump secured a healthy segment of the Republican Party’s primary electorate by running against the Republican Party. A vote for Trump ratified a critique of the GOP popular among the right’s entertainer class, which holds that Republicans had only ever rolled over for Barack Obama and his Democrats. The battle cry for this nihilistic conceit: “Burn it all down.” The arson was unexpectedly delayed by the wonder of Trump’s presidential victory, but the Republican Party’s great reckoning may have only been postponed.
Though the president’s standing has fallen off among rank-and-file GOP voters, Donald Trump retains the approval of at least seven in 10 self-identified Republicans. The relationship between Trump and his core voters is, at this stage of the presidency, aspirational. For them, he represents the triumph those who resent the sneering cultural liberalism dominant on the coasts and in America’s urban centers, and that is enough. Republicans in Congress have a much more transactional relationship with the neophyte at the head of their party. With Trump’s approval ratings among GOP voters nearing levels similar to those enjoyed by George W. Bush before he lost both chambers of Congress in 2006, observers have been eyeing the GOP’s elected representatives to see who was veering toward an off-ramp. Donald Trump isn’t waiting around for the GOP to make the first move.
“I cannot imagine that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go!” the president tweeted on Monday morning. This shot across the congressional GOP’s bow comes as Congress returns from the July 4th break but with only a handful of working days in the calendar before the August recess, and with the U.S. Senate no closer to a health care bill. Indeed, Republicans are starting to admit in public they may have to work with their Democratic counterparts on a compromise—an eventuality the GOP hoped to avoid by passing ObamaCare’s repeal and replacement with simple majorities via the Reconciliation process.
The president doesn’t care if Republicans are forced by failure to pass a health care bill that lacks typically Republican characteristics. Trump has called the House version of ObamaCare’s replacement “mean,” and added that it could benefit from both “more heart” and “more money.” Given those criteria, the president will surely approve whatever ObamaCare fixes the Democrats offer. What’s striking about the president’s tweet isn’t that he is publicly lobbying congressional Republicans to get him a bill as quickly as possible; rather, he’s laying the groundwork to castigate them in the likely event that no bill is forthcoming before August.
Trump’s latest effort to wade into the Senate’s business follows a remarkable report that suggests the president is inclined to go to war with those in his own party who he feels are insufficiently zealous in their support for Donald Trump, the man. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reported on Monday that Donald Trump has talked about spending $10 million of his personal income to see Republican Senator Jeff Flake defeated. That revelation follows a seven-figure advertising campaign by a pro-Trump outside group attacking Trump critic and GOP Senator Dean Heller, a campaign the president allegedly supported.
This chafing irritation is mutual. Senate Republicans are allegedly frustrated with Trump, too. They are exasperated by his public comments undermining their efforts to craft consensus around controversial legislation. They are frustrated by his attacks on their vulnerable members. They are annoyed by his attempt to remake the party in Congress in his name, an effort that is visible in the Republican National Committee’s conspicuously sluggish response to requests for support on behalf of Alabama Senator Luther Strange. The appointed senator faces a field of primary challengers, all of whom (including Strange), are competing to appear more Trumpian than the other guy.
The list of grievances that is tearing the loose alliance between the GOP in Congress and the White House apart is long and growing. According to Isenstadt, the lingering antipathy between the Senate GOP and Trump stems from the 2016 campaign and, in particular, the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which prompted a number of Republicans to call for Trump to relinquish the GOP’s presidential nomination. Like the object of their affections, Trump’s defenders are apt to conflate the personal and the public. They may see the president’s efforts to remake the party over which he presides in his image as perfectly justified, even if targeting vulnerable members in swing states may jeopardize the GOP’s majorities. After all, what good are those lethargic, factional Republican majorities anyway? This is the logic of “burn it all down.”
If, however, the pro-Trump right is inclined to support the president—either through the uncompromising logic of partisan loyalty, the hectoring of the talker class, or antipathy toward the slow pace of Congress—it weakens their value as a wing of the Republican coalition. The president’s pique-fueled resolve to punish his party’s members for their insolence is self-defeating; weakening his allies in Trump-skeptical states like Nevada and Arizona will result in fewer allies. Those inclined to support the president along this self-destructive course (among many others) cherish their grievance more than governance.
If August comes and goes without any major legislation becoming law, President Trump may be preparing to shift the blame for that historic debacle onto congressional shoulders. The president’s supporters will cheer this destructive civil conflict, while most members of the GOP conference in Congress unable to return fire. All the while, enthusiasm for the Republican project will wane ahead of what should be an already difficult election cycle for the governing party. This isn’t an unforeseen consequence of Donald Trump’s ascension to lead the GOP. Indeed, it was the original intent.