Congressional Republicans passed tax-code reform into law on December 19, and the near-term effects exceeded even the most wide-eyed optimist’s imaginings. Almost every day since, some large employer has announced its intention to reinvest in capital and workers what they will save as a result of the reduction in the corporate tax rate. This means more employment opportunities and things like raises, bonuses, and 401(k) hikes. Manufacturing is repatriating into the U.S. as a result of the tax bill, and even the minimum wage is on the rise for several major employers. Events have humbled Democrats who predicted that the GOP’s tax reform initiative would only benefit the wealthiest. Republicans should enjoy this modest vindication because it’s all they’re going to get. A reckoning is coming for the GOP, and it has nothing to do with the party’s policies. Voters seem prepared to deliver a negative verdict on Donald Trump.
As of this writing, the United States is embroiled in two concurrent international incidents that have almost nothing to do with American policy or U.S. interests. On Friday morning, President Trump canceled a scheduled trip to the United Kingdom, America’s closest and most pivotal ally, because he simply wasn’t welcome. Trump offered a variety of unconvincing explanations for his scrapped visit, but the truth is that his reckless tweeting promoted some of the U.K.’s most racist elements, sparking a feud with Prime Minister Teresa May. His presence simply couldn’t be tolerated. Likewise, the president apparently (according to the non-denials of his communications staff) used an ugly expletive to describe half of the world. Many of the slighted countries are now issuing bristling protests and requesting formal clarification as to whether the leader of the free world views them as “shitholes.”
At home, the controversy over Trump’s latest verbal evacuation is once again sucking up all the available oxygen. Cable news is consumed with the debate over whether or not Trump was right to declare some 54 nations fetid cavities on the global landscape. More crippling for the president, the national-media landscape is equally enlivened by the debate over whether Trump’s comments—in which he apparently contended that “skilled” migrants could only come from European nations and not the developing world—represent rank bigotry. Whatever the GOP agenda was yesterday is once again derailed by Trump’s big mouth.
Trump-friendly Republicans will convince themselves that these are distractions that are of interest only to a hopelessly biased political press, but they’re not. Not to voters. According to polling over the course of the last month, registered voters would prefer to see Democrats retake Congress by anywhere from a 7- to 18-point margin. The number of House Republicans looking for the exits in 2018 outpaces events in both 2010 and 1994, two wave years when the party in power suffered a drubbing.
What’s driving this kind of anti-Republican sentiment? It’s not foreign affairs. Despite Trump-instigated diplomatic furors, the world is at relative peace. The ISIS threat has receded dramatically, and U.S.-led sorties are being reduced accordingly. It’s not the economy. Unemployment is at a 17-year low. The labor market is tightening, and wages in sectors like manufacturing are up. The economy is growing at a sustainable 3 percent, and near daily new stock market highs ensure that retirement investments are seeing a substantial return. Republicans who think voters are going to fall on their knees in gratitude to the GOP when they see a tax code reform-related 2 percent withholding reduction in their paycheck come February are kidding themselves.
The driving force behind the coming backlash is Trump, the man, more so than Trump, the president. He is ubiquitous, and not in a good way. He consumes the news cycle and preoccupies the minds of Americans. His erratic behavior encourages anxiety, not reassurance. His self-indulgent tweets, his tactless turns of phrase, his all-consuming narcissism, and his habit of “telling it like it is”—a conceit that amounts to an excuse for bigotry and intolerance—have repulsed many more Americans than it has enthused. Those Americans are prepared to render a negative verdict on the GOP not because of their record in office but in spite of it. 2018 will see a values election, and it will be the left’s values that the nation will affirm as their own.
It used to be conservatives who could claim to represent America’s unspoken moral foundations. Theirs was the ideology of probity and prudence, frugality and modesty, piety and chivalry, equanimity and egalitarianism; the underpinnings of the American ethos. Whether he believes in the conservative ethic or not, these are not values typified by Donald Trump’s daily conduct. Americans have noticed, and they don’t approve.
Even if Democrats just retake the House in November, it would spell the official end of the legislative phase of the Trump presidency. I say “official” because the window for legislative achievements is nearly closed already. The president’s complete lack of discipline and disinterest in any policy particulars ensures that when he’s not negotiating against himself, he’s insulting the people he needs in order to achieve further legislative successes. Despite the promise of the new Republican dawn, the GOP is on track to vastly underperform expectations. And for these modest gains, the GOP will sacrifice not just the power it accrued in the Obama years but the values upon which it has stood for more than a generation. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.