Race to the Bottom

Trump’s Big Bet—That Republican Voters Like Him More Than Their Party or Congress

The president loathes his Republican ‘partners’ in the House and the Senate, and doesn’t much mind how unpopular he is so long as he remains more popular than them.

Trump’s Big Bet—That Republican Voters Like Him More Than Their Party or Congress

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The angst-signaling and anger-venting in the nation’s capital about this president’s unpredictability and erratic behavior is at unprecedented level.

Increasingly, Republicans in Congress—Sen. Bob Corker, publicly, and plenty of others, privately—are voicing worry about what happens when a man they view as a toddler-president is left unsupervised by his various taxpayer-funded nannies.

For all the speculation about President Trump’s motives for what appear to be ill-informed or un-strategic moves there is a method to Trump’s perceived madness—a relatively simple way to accurately predict what he’ll do on any given topic, with regard to any given decision.

The key is understanding that Trump’s desire to round up Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, douse them with gasoline, light them on fire, and broadcast the auto-da-fé live on cable news will always outweigh his other desires—including improving his own personal profile, achieving a stated policy outcome, or even making the people nearest and dearest to him happy.

Trump, commonly regarded by many as perhaps the apex of narcissism in a reality-TV-obsessed, take-six-selfies-a-day and compulsively-post-on–social-media culture, indeed loves positioning himself as the best, the biggest, the brightest, the boldest, and brashest.

But at the end of the day, Trump’s shown again and again that he cares little about being generally unpopular, even among parts of his base. Trump cares deeply though, about how popular he is viewed relative to his competitors.

One thing he correctly ascertained, well before he launched his campaign for president, is that the political class in general is reviled by most Americans. Trump may have low approval ratings, but those of Congress and both political parties are worse. That, combined with his personal animus toward McConnell, who he clearly views as weak, ineffective, and insufficiently loyal, and Paul Ryan, who he seems to view as a traitor and outright enemy, ensures that every time Trump sees a chance to lob either or both of them into political quicksand, he’ll do it. Even if that risks his ostensible “agenda” being reversed or ground to a further halt.

This is the easiest way to understand Trump’s recent deal-cutting with “Chuck and Nancy,” especially with regard to the debt ceiling. Sen. Ben Sasse commented after that “negotiation” that Trump had ensured that Minority Leader Schumer would be the most powerful man in America come December, a move that many Republicans viewed as totally inexplicable. But it wasn’t, at least if you understood that Trump wanted to “cuck” McConnell and Ryan.

It is also the easiest way to comprehend what Trump has been up to with numerous games surrounding Obamacare.

We’ve had him state his support for repealing and replacing it, but do basically nothing to further that goal personally, and hold a premature-dancing-in-the-endzone press conference over a single move by the House to repeal it, only for him to subsequently call the House approach “mean.”

We’ve had him come back and back again to force some continued focus by Congress on repeal when it was manifestly obvious to any clued-up observer that the GOP simply was not going to get the votes to accomplish that based on intra-party disagreements on fundamental health care policy—something that has prevented the party from moving on to tax reform in the timely fashion needed to give them significant hope of passing something on that front.

We saw this again, just this week, with his moves to defund Obamacare subsidies (legally sound though they may have been), which effectively mean that Congress will have to jump back into the Obamacare quagmire again, and into an effective no-win situation. If the GOP-controlled Congress funds the subsidies, the Republican base will go ape because they’re preserving and propping up Obamacare. If they don’t, they will get hammered by liberals and Democrats heading into a tough election year for doing nothing to prevent massive premium hikes on ordinary, working Americans. Oh, and either way, the GOP will have to burn time on the issue, rather than getting tax reform done—and if they cannot accomplish that goal, which now looks nearly unattainable, they’ll increase the number of voters who view them as weak and ineffective.

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Whatever the legal merits of Trump’s most recent Obamacare action, the truth is that he just put McConnell and Ryan back into another no-win situation. And he’s probably watching cable news cover the mess, while guzzling more Diet Coke and laughing hysterically.

Rationally, you would think that even if political commentators and the media can’t figure out that this is what is consistently going on, every Republican in Congress would have twigged and the vast majority of them, whose interests are not served by playing this game, would be calling Trump out.

But there’s always that pesky, nagging issue of the polling and the numbers: Trump may have bad approval ratings, but Republican voters still like him more than not. However unpopular the president may be, he’s still more popular than Congress and the GOP.

This is the Republican conundrum, and why it’s very possible that despite gerrymandering, ideological self-segregation of voters, and the existence of many (if not most) Americans in philosophical or identitarian echo chambers, Democrats will over-perform next year. It’s hard to earn rewards in politics when the perception consistently exists that you’re a do-nothing who has literally been neutered by a cartoon character-like figure who keeps your balls in a glass jar on the corner of the Resolute Desk. “Chuck and Nancy,” for all their flaws, do not appear to be completely without cojones, consistently, across-the-board—rather, they look all-too-eager to “do something” (even if the “something” is not very good).

Despite the Democrats’ many weaknesses, that just might be enough come next November—at least so far as the House is concerned.