President Trump made two big political decisions over past half-week, and both are already proving disasters.
The first decision was to cut himself loose from the Republican leadership in Congress. Trump blasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a sequence of tweets fixing blame on McConnell—and thereby absolving himself—for the failure of Obamacare repeal.
The second decision was to issue a statement condemning “many sides” for the confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend—and adhering to that policy of pandering to white nationalism even after the ramming death of a counter-protester and the injury of many more.
Trump had wanted to stand apart from Republicans in Congress—and they have now obliged him. Former campaign rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; Senator Cory Gardner, who heads the Senate Republican campaign organization; President Pro Tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch—all issued statements implicitly criticizing Trump’s response for its even-handedness between perpetrators and targets.
It’s always hazardous to overthink the strategy behind Trump’s words or actions. Oftentimes the president simply reacts with impulsive emotionalism to events. Yet there are plausible reasons for him to distance himself from the Senate Republicans now. A president normally needs Congress to enact his agenda. This president, however, does not have much of a legislative agenda. Instead, he has submitted to the policy agenda of Congress—and that agenda is, if possible, even less popular than he is. Trump will be far better off going to the nation in 2020 not having removed Medicaid coverage from millions of red state voters, not having shoved through a huge upper-income tax cut financed by stringent domestic budget cuts, than he would be running on that record.
What Trump needs most for 2020 is an excuse, and a plausible enemy. Complaints about “Democratic obstruction” and “partisan Russia witch hunts” sound absurd when Republicans control both houses of Congress. Lose even one chamber, however, and suddenly those talking points acquire some plausibility, at least in the ears of Trump-inclined voters. And even if blaming Congress does not reflect a deliberate strategic calculation—with this president, it’s difficult to conclude that anything does—it could be regarded as working to his advantage. The Trump base is much more clearly defined by its cultural resentments than by any policy program: sacrificing the program to enflame the resentments may well appear to the embattled Trump White House as the least bad survival option.
Trump supporters often invoke the president’s supposed mandate from “the people.” Here’s what Kellyanne Conway told Andrea Mitchell just last weekend:
Republican consultants ... totally missed what was happening in America. That the forgotten man and forgotten woman, many of whom had voted for Democrats in the past, many of whom had never voted, or never voted in decades, came forth and made this new Trump coalition in a way that—in a way that frankly, respectfully, the last couple of Republican candidates did not.
Trump aides say such things so often that they themselves may have lost sight of how untrue they are. Trump not only lost the popular vote in 2016, but he won a smaller share than Mitt Romney in 2012, and only 0.3 percent more than John McCain in the disastrous year 2008. (The tallies stand at 45.93 percent for Trump vs. 45.6 percent for McCain.) With barely one-third of the U.S. public approving his presidency in the last pre-Charlottesville polls, Trump’s presidency has sunk to the lowest level of popularity ever recorded in a president’s first year.
The Trump team may be trying to replay Bill Clinton’s triangulation of 1995-96, when Clinton won reelection by positioning himself as a moderate centrist between the extremes of the congressional Republicans and congressional Democrats. And maybe Trump could have executed a blue-collar version of that strategy by joining cultural conservatism to a free-spending populism of infrastructure spending and the defense of Medicare and Medicaid. Instead he’s positioned himself in such a way that other political actors can triangulate against him: congressional Republicans, by rejecting Trump’s indulgence of murderous racism; congressional Democrats, by fastening Trump to the widely disliked Ryan-McConnell policy agenda.
It’s probably impossible for a man of Trump’s psychology to process how much legal jeopardy he and his family may be in—and how utterly he depends on Republicans in Congress to shield him. President Bill Clinton faced down scandal politics in his second term because his party united to support him, a decision politically vindicated by the strong Democratic showing in 1998, the best sixth-year election performance in modern history. Trump, by contrast, is doing his utmost to persuade congressional Republicans that it could well be less disastrous to face the voters in 2020 under Mike Pence than Donald Trump. Pence apparently thinks so, too. Pre-Charlottesville, that remained a tough sale. Post-Charlottesville, things look different.
Trump now stands not between the parties, or above the parties, but beyond the parties—in some strange political twilight zone where neo-Nazis are seen as a constituency not to be insulted. As events shift Trump to that bizarre place, even his one authentic achievement as president—the steep reduction in illegal immigration—risks becoming an anti-achievement. Trump and his white-nationalist advisers seem determined to corroborate their critics’ accusation that enforcement is concerned not with protecting the wages and working conditions of legal residents of the United States—part of a pro-worker agenda that also could include a big investment in construction, trust-busting of college tuition, and a defense of existing social-insurance programs—but instead as a component of a white-nationalist agenda that also includes attacks on minority voting rights, a rollback of affirmative action, and compliments to authoritarian leaders worldwide.
The conventional wisdom is that dissension is a party killer; safer to stay united around even a low-polling president than to act against him. But what if it is the president who is fomenting the dissension, because his ego requires that every failure be blamed on somebody else? What if the president is polling so low that he splashes his party with his own odium? What if he is branding his entirely flag-waving party with the flags not of the United States but of Russia, the Southern Confederacy, and now amazingly even Nazi Germany? Then, to quote the Moby Dick account that seems at every turn to be subtweeting this presidency:
Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better.