As Crazytown erupted last week with the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times, it was easy to dismiss the lurid stories of deceit and betrayal as just more evidence of the chaos and backstabbing that has characterized the Trump White House since the beginning. Jeb Bush, the early frontrunner for the Republican nomination, warned early on during the Republican primaries that Donald Trump was a chaos candidate who would be a chaos President. And so he has turned out to be. What’s more, by all accounts he likes it that way.
There is certainly nothing earth-shattering in hearing more stories quoting anonymous sources about senior administration officials trashing their boss. Even before Michael Wolff published Fire and Fury earlier this year, we had been treated to stories of Rex Tillerson, John Kelly and Jim Mattis — along with any number of lesser lights — making snarky comments behind Donald Trump’s back. No doubt Bob Woodward brings greater credibility and attention to detail to bear on the subject than Wolff did, but as troubling as the widely circulated stories from Woodward’s book might be, none of it is particularly surprising.
The anonymous op-ed mirrors Woodward’s accounts of senior Trump officials taking it upon themselves to undermine the President’s agenda. The salience of the op-ed, however, is not the shock value of the insubordination of top Trump officials, or even suggestions that the President is unfit to serve; rather, it is the author’s defense of a tight knit group of “adults” within the administration who are “choosing to put country first” as they seek to subvert what they view as Donald Trump’s worst instincts. These are, the author, submits, the heroes of the Trump era.
But the truth is, their opposition is not rooted in a higher calling of service to the nation. It is about politics, pure and simple, and reflects the dilemma that the Republican Party has faced since Donald Trump won the GOP nomination over two years ago.
In the spring of 2016, two-thirds of Republicans polled suggested that they could never vote for Donald Trump for President. Yet, by the time Election Day rolled around, the lion’s share of GOP voters dutifully fell in line. Today, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is among the highest for any Republican President on record. Nonetheless, for many Republicans — like the op-ed author — that support remains equivocal. The op-ed applauds the President’s success in delivering on tax cuts, deregulation and increased military spending, even as it trumpets the success of the “resistance” in undermining Trump’s efforts to deliver on those policies that are most loved by his base, but which the “resistance” find morally objectionable.
The author’s stance reflects that of many in the GOP, most notably Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. The two congressional leaders have made no bones about using Donald Trump to pass long-standing priorities of Ronald Reagan’s GOP — cutting taxes and regulation, confirming conservative judges, and boosting military spending — even as they have quietly sought to undermine the President in those areas that have the most emotional resonance for his core supporters, and which constitute the essence of Trumpism — building the Wall, shutting down DACA, cutting back both legal and illegal immigration, getting out of trade agreements, and the like.
There is a war simmering in the GOP, just as the op-ed describes a guerrilla war inside the Trump administration. For decades now, the Republican Party has been a coalition of numerous groups with diverse interests. Half of those in the GOP who support the President do so because they believe in him. They believe in what he does. They believe in what he says. And they believe in who he is. They are the base of the Republican Party that have loved Donald Trump since the days when most Republicans said they could never vote for him. The Trump base tends to be white, less educated and less well off than other Republican voters. Within the GOP coalition, they are the descendants of the southern and white working-class voters that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan brought into the party, and who formed the political base of Pat Buchanan’s Peasants with Pitchforks insurgency in the 1990s.
The other half — like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the author of the op-ed — support the President not because of his rhetoric, but because of what he has delivered for them. They are, for lack of a better word, the Republican establishment. Steve Bannon got it right this week when he described the actions reported in the op-ed as a coup by the Republican establishment against the ascent of Trumpism.
At some point, that war has to break out into the open. Despite all the talk about Donald Trump owning the Republican Party, he is going to wake up one morning and realize that he — and his core supporters — have been had. They did all the heavy lifting to get him to the White House, but it is Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and wealthy Republican donors — who supported Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the primaries — who have gotten everything they ever wanted from his Presidency. Meanwhile, due in large measure to the efforts of Ryan, McConnell — and the cabal of senior officials described in the anonymous op-ed — the President has been able to deliver relatively little for those voters those who have been most loyal to him.
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 Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.