The Master of Negation

Trump makes clear what he’s against. But unless congressional Republicans can explain to voters what they stand for, they face bleak prospects in November.

Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Over the past few days, the news for Republican congressional candidates has been almost unremittingly bleak. Troy Balderson, a state senator running in a central Ohio district that had long been considered rock solid for the GOP, is only narrowly ahead of the Democrat Danny O’Connor, a relative newcomer who has yet to concede defeat. In Washington State’s jungle primary, which winnows candidates of all parties down to the top two vote winners who then go on to contest the November general election, Republican candidates badly underperformed expectations. Seemingly safe Republican seats, such as southern Washington’s sprawling Third District, currently represented by the erstwhile rising star Jaime Herrera Beutler, now appear to be in jeopardy. Hopes that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the tight labor market would together lift the fortunes of the incumbent party have dimmed, and Republicans are turning to a more urgent message as the midterms approach: If the Democrats win, the Donald Trump presidency will be imperiled.

So suggested Representative Devin Nunes of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and one of President Trump’s most zealous defenders, to a closed-door gathering of donors late last month. Steve Bannon, the right-wing impresario once considered Trump’s chief ideologist, is speaking in similarly apocalyptic terms, warning that the first thing Democrats will do if they secure a House majority is move to impeach the president. In an interview with New York magazine, he claimed that while Democrats were committed to removing Trump from office, regardless of the findings of the Mueller investigation, they were shrewd enough to avoid campaigning on doing so: “Because they’ve seen the same data I’ve seen. The way to get the deplorables out is very simple: It’s talking impeachment. They want to shut you up, and they want to impeach Trump. So if you like Trump, you gotta show up. It’s very simple.” Elsewhere, in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Bannon made his point more plainly, insisting that Trump voters back GOP candidates in the fall, even when said candidates were, in his words, “RINOs” or “establishment figures.” This is a far cry from the bravado of months ago, when Bannon was busily orchestrating primary challenges against supposed RINOs and establishment figures in Senate races around the country, and it ignores the fact that there is no scenario in which Democrats could successfully remove the president from office without a substantial number of Republican votes in the Senate.

Of course, there is a more plausible version of Bannon’s argument. Short of removing the president from office, a Democratic majority in the House could subject the Trump administration to heightened scrutiny. The Framers of the Constitution had assumed that in the normal course of events, the legislative and executive branches of the federal government would engage in a constant tug-of-war, thus checking the tendency to overreach on the part of either or both. In practice, as the legal scholars Daryl J. Levinson and Richard H. Pildes have documented, this expectation has been honored mostly in the breach. Partisan political competition has long since taken precedence over competition between the legislative and executive branches. Though some Republican lawmakers have endeavored to constrain Trump in various ways, most have been reluctant to do so, seeing him less as an institutional rival and more as the paramount leader of their party coalition, in keeping with modern practice.

Indeed, one could argue that Republicans must hold the House and the Senate to protect Trump from an endless series of investigations that would, even short of impeachment proceedings, cripple his ability to advance his domestic policy agenda. Fair enough. But this leaves us with still more vexing questions. What exactly is Donald Trump’s agenda going forward? And is pursuing it consistent with Republican success?

Just as Democrats in Congress can’t remove the president from office without the aid of Republicans, Republican lawmakers need Democratic votes to effect deep and lasting changes to, for example, U.S. immigration policy, one of the president’s priorities, or to finance the upgrading of American infrastructure. There is very little that can be done without bringing along some number of swing-state and rural Democrats, and as Republican fortunes decline, said Democrats feel ever less inclined to cooperate. After the midterms, the Democratic senators who manage to win reelection in notionally Republican states will be further emboldened. The window for a Trump legislative agenda is closing.

There are steps that can be taken by executive fiat, to be sure, but as a number of journalists have reported, there is a consistent pattern linking together many of the Trump administration’s more ambitious efforts to overhaul rules and regulations over which it has considerable sway: These efforts have been pursued so shambolically that they are often vulnerable to legal challenge. Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is reportedly making an effort to ensure that his agency’s new policy initiatives are on firmer ground than those pursued under his much-ridiculed predecessor, Scott Pruitt. But he has met with resistance from the Trump White House. And why is that? Josh Barro, writing in Business Insider, offers a novel hypothesis: that the president’s objective is less to patiently lay the groundwork for a comprehensive rethinking of environmental regulation than it is to pick visible fights with the left that have the potential to energize the president’s base. The point of picking the fight is not to achieve some policy breakthrough, as Wheeler might have it. Rather, the point of picking the fight is to fight, and to fight endlessly if possible.

As a presidential candidate, Trump appealed to Republican primary voters who were less ideological than the avowed conservatives who flocked to Ted Cruz and other more doctrinaire candidates. He did so by presenting himself as a master of the art of negotiation. Yet his real talent, then as now, has proven to be his knack for negation, as Martin Gurri, the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, has argued. According to Gurri, the politics of negation is a style perfected in online communities. By way of illustration, he writes, “If you asked an indignado or an Occupier or a Tea Partier what they stood against, you would get long, long lists of grievances. If you asked what they stood for, you’d get throat-clearing noises and generalities like ‘social justice’ or ‘the Constitution.’” The creation of a positive program of reform is almost beside the point. Revolt is its own reward. Even when Trump’s policy prescriptions are perfectly banal, he frames them in an exaggerated and pointedly polarizing manner, as if it were his goal to stoke outrage. And for now, a decent-sized slice of the electorate welcomes his politics of negation, or is more fearful of the new modes of negation that are arising in response to Trump than they are of him.

Where does that leave the hapless Republican politicians seeking to represent voters who’ve come to identify with Trump’s brand of negation? Though many Republicans are uncomfortable with the president and his often erratic behavior, they won’t divorce themselves from him, for the simple reason that he continues to enjoy widespread support in their electoral constituencies—that is, among the women and men who’ve voted for them. To rebuke the president is one thing. To persist in doing so once it becomes abundantly clear that your objections have done nothing to diminish support for him among your voters is another thing entirely. It is at that point that you either stay true to your convictions, fully aware that doing so will mean your own political doom, and your replacement by someone who is more responsive to public preferences, or you swallow your pride and accommodate the changing political mood. The alternative is to deem voters who see Trump as their flawed champion—despite caveats, disagreements, and misgivings—as unworthy of representation.

But this is not a counsel of inaction, or of intellectual paralysis. The logical course of action for Republicans in the Trump era is to do the hard work of building a more constructive populism, in the not-unreasonable expectation that the obsessive, furious rejection of the status quo found among Trump’s voters exists alongside a longing for something more substantial. The raw materials have been there for the taking. Though no one would accuse Trump of having crafted a coherent and actionable policy agenda, a few things separated him from his Republican rivals: He recognized that the welfare state is here to stay; that the reigning model of global economic integration had lost its legitimacy; that the GOP was an increasingly blue-collar party; that the socially liberal upper-middle-class constituted a part of society that had a bad habit of mistaking its narrow interests for those of the whole of American society; and that the Rust Belt was open, albeit tentatively, to a more egalitarian politics of the right.

In office, the president has done little of substance to build on these insights. But that was entirely predictable. Trump is the master of negation, not creation. The job of creation belongs to the many politicians who badly want to represent the tens of millions of Americans who still stand by the president, yet who know in their bones that he can’t give them what they want and need. How might Republican lawmakers have built on these insights? There is no shortage of examples. To name but one, it would have been trivial for Republicans to have tweaked the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act by boosting the value of the earned-income tax credit. Expanding the credit by 10 percent, an amount far short of the more ambitious proposals, would have cost Treasury no more than $7 billion a year, a pittance when compared with the legislation’s total impact on federal revenue. Yet this modest idea was never seriously considered, despite the fact that it would have almost surely been welcomed by Trump, not to mention that it would have given embattled Republican candidates something to crow about on the stump.

If the Democratic landslide does come this November, rest assured that Republicans will blame the president and his politics of negation for their fate. Know that this will be at best only half of the truth—the deeper fault lies with a congressional GOP that has utterly failed to rise to the challenge of binding America’s wounds.