The Republican Party that now controls Congress has been fundamentally altered by the Trump victory. This is often forgotten these days as the pundit class focuses its attention on the dire predicament of the Democratic Party. But the reality of the election is that the Republican Establishment is now a head without a body, and the Republican electorate, which the Party has been exploiting against its better economic interests for decades, is now headed by Donald Trump.
A head without a body
The Ryan-McConnell head-without-a-body shows no signs of recognizing its decapitation. Perhaps this is just an acknowledgement that the connection was never that strong to begin with. What should have shocked the Republican Establishment, or at least given it some pause in its rush to serve its wealthy benefactors, was the undeniable demonstration that Republican voters couldn’t care less about 80 percent of the Party’s agenda.
This was proven in the primaries as every establishment Presidential candidate from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz tried to take down Trump for his lack of conservative bona fides, only to discover that none of it had any effect on Republican voters. Rank and file Republicans (or, more accurately, Trumpians) liked the Party’s dog-whistle racism, its efforts to limit women’s rights, and its immigrant-scapegoating, but beyond that, showed themselves to be quite comfortable with soaking the rich, accepting government handouts, protecting Medicare, expanding Social Security, providing healthcare for all, scrapping trade agreements, and believing fantasies about building a time machine to bring back manufacturing jobs that somehow got trapped in the 1950’s.
There is no small irony in the fact that the anti-government revolutionaries of the Republican Party selected as their standard bearer a clinical narcissist who is unable to imagine himself as anything less than Emperor of the United States. So a falling out somewhere down the line between the would-be Emperor and the anti-monarchists seems inevitable. The only questions are when and over what.
Two things Establishment Republicans want from Trump
Brian Beutler offered an interesting perspective in The New Republic, arguing that Establishment Republicans in Congress will continue to ignore the embarrassment that is Donald Trump until they have extracted from him the two gifts they care most about: another round of massive tax cuts for their wealthy patrons and a Supreme Court appointment that will lock-in a pro-business, anti-regulation majority for the foreseeable future.
The Supreme Court pick is not completely within the control of the Senate Republicans, thanks to the filibuster rule requiring at least a handful of Democrats to reach a 60 vote threshold. So, a completely out-of-bounds ideologue like Clarence Thomas or Robert Bork is unlikely to be nominated, and Republicans will have to settle for a riskier choice, a nominee with actual credentials worthy of a Supreme Court Justice. Democrats can hope that a David Souter might slip in, but beyond that, a liberal majority on the Court will likely remain a pipe dream for decades.
The tax cut will be inevitable because it is an issue on which Trump and Congress can happily agree. It will contain the usual outsized payoff to the super-rich, along with a small bone thrown to the middle class to provide cover for its primary purpose. Like every Republican tax cut since the Reagan Administration, it will not stimulate the economy, it will blow another massive hole in the deficit, it will increase economic inequality, it will trigger a recession a couple of years down the line, and Republicans will blame the resulting economic weakness on Democrats and use it to oppose any future government programs that could actually improve the lot of the middle class. In other words, business as usual.
But once those two issues are out of the way, what next? The answer largely depends on Trump, who will have two paths open to him. First, he may decide to embrace the Republican program of further dismantling the Welfare State, rolling back civil liberties, ending environmental protections, deregulating Big Business, and suppressing voter rights. If he does so, he will have many friends in both the House and Senate to help him out. However, that path will openly betray his most ardent supporters, who rely on many of the programs Establishment Republicans (led by Paul Ryan) most want to destroy. Indeed, the white working class hates Establishment Republicans almost as much as it hated Hillary Clinton. As Republicans have learned only belatedly, when you poison your base against a “rigged” system, you poison them against yourself as well as your opposition.
So Trump might choose a second path and go “full demagogue,” turning against Establishment Republicans and their corporate sponsors, and presenting himself as a kind of alt-right Bernie Sanders, railing against the rigged system, promising his followers to protect all their favorite social welfare systems, blaming everything on minorities, immigrants, terrorists, and traitorous corporations, lying prolifically and indiscriminately, and reminding everyone that he really believes “I alone can fix it.” And with that pivot, Trump will aim his clown-car Administration directly down the road toward an Imperial, Authoritarian Presidency.
That path, in fact, seems so congenial with Trump’s narcissism and his ignorance of the constitution that it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. But that would also put him on a collision course with the one institution that can meaningfully stand in his way – the United States Congress, controlled in both houses by the Republican Party.
How is the US Congress likely to react? Sadly, there are many Republicans who share Trump’s authoritarian leanings and will enthusiastically support him. But there is a good chance that enough anti-imperial, small-government Republicans can be found in both Houses, especially in the Senate, to join Democrats in blocking Trump’s most outrageous extra-constitutional shenanigans. There are already some early signs of resistance in Republican Senators’ calls to investigate Russian interference in the election, despite Trump’s clear opposition to such an inquiry.
In addition, if Trump’s unforced errors, self-aggrandizement, or delusions of grandeur get too far out of hand, such that he becomes an electoral liability to the Republican Party, sleepy Jason Chaffetz may once again wake up to his investigative duties and start easing Trump down a different path, toward impeachment. From the perspective of the Republican Establishment, the crazier Donald Trump becomes, the better a malleable loyalist like President Mike Pence looks.
In summary, if Trump strays too far from the traditional Republican Party line, he is likely to meet Congressional resistance, possibly impeachment. But if he governs as a “typical Republican,” he is likely to alienate the white working class voters who won him the Presidency. So Trump is actually in a tough spot.
To square this circle, Trump might try to pursue both paths at once. On the one hand, he can follow a of least resistance and simply let the Republicans in Congress enact whatever policies they desire. Given Trump’s disinterest in anything complicated, like policy making, and his well-documented short attention span, he might just outsource his policy agenda to Paul Ryan, without much awareness or interest in the fact that Ryan’s stated agenda directly contradicts many of the promises he made to his white working-class supporters.
At the same time, he may try to satisfy those supporters symbolically by offering them a steady diet of angry, confrontational, racist, and bigoted rhetoric in the hopes that this will distract them from any failures to address their economic needs. This would be a relatively rational, if highly cynical, course to take. It also would align with Trump’s long history of offering and then reneging on promises – to investors (Trump casinos), contractors (refusal to pay), and customers (Trump University). Its success would depend on his white working-class followers not noticing, yet again, that they were being conned.
But it’s also possible that Trump’s grandiosity and narcissistic need for dominance and admiration will overwhelm his rational thinking and drive him into a more irrational confrontation with the US Congress, one for which he might be unprepared, and which he might lose.