One of the things supposedly driving President Donald Trump to distraction, in what should be a celebratory first week in office, is that he isn’t getting a honeymoon period from the media and the general public. “Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media’s failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements,” The Washington Post reported this week, “and he feels demoralized that the public’s perception of his presidency so far does not necessarily align with his own sense of accomplishment.”
Trump is still widely disliked, as he was even the day after he defeated Hillary Clinton; the fact that he’s so unpopular contributed to the weak turnout at his inauguration; on Friday, reporters noted (accurately) that far fewer people attended his swearing-in than attended Barack Obama’s first inauguration; on Saturday, they noted (again, accurately) that a massive anti-Trump protest on the first day of his presidency was also better attended than his inauguration.
Trump hasn’t been able to let it go. His preoccupation with popularity hasn’t motivated him to do popular things, but it has driven him to manic outbursts about imaginary voter fraud and media conspiracies. An apparently typical digression about fraud and the popular vote during a meeting with congressional leaders this week “was greeted with silence, and Mr. Trump was prodded to change the subject by Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, and Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas,” according to The New York Times.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are at pains to maintain a façade of unity. But behind these conspicuous morale-boosting exercises, Republicans are doing a poor job concealing their awareness of how terribly this fledgling government is going. What they haven’t done is anything meaningful to change the trajectory. They have signed up for a suicide mission with Trump, without a complete understanding of what the purpose of the mission is, whether it will succeed, or how severe the collateral damage will be.
At a glance, Trump is an odd star to hitch a wagon to. He’s extremely unpopular at a time when he should be about as popular as he’ll ever be. The latest national poll, from Quinnipiac University on Thursday, found that only 36 percent approve of the way Trump is handling his new job, while 44 percent disapprove (compared to 59 percent approval and 25 percent disapproval for Barack Obama).
Had Trump spent the first days of his presidency calming nerves and behaving graciously, he might be on the upswing, but instead, he did the opposite. Everywhere you look below the surface, Republicans show signs of discomfiture with Trump’s temperament and the rickety state of his government. Consider:
- Republicans are ducking and hiding from questions about Trump, and being evasive when they answer. “I’m just not concentrating on [Trump’s false voter fraud claims]. I’m looking at the policies he’s putting forward, and they look good to me,” said Senator Shelly Moore Capito.
- When confronted with the fact that Trump claimed to be working with him on a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, incoming House and Human Services Secretary Tom Price wisecracked, “It’s true that he said that, yes.”
- Of Texas’ 38 members of Congress (most of whom are Republican), none would full-throatedly endorse Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border.
- Senators like John McCain have criticized Trump’s promise to renegotiate NAFTA and to keep an open mind about torture.
- Palace-intrigue stories sourced in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico—all sourced to the White House—portraying Trump as a fragile, erratic, television-obsessed snowflake.
The pattern that emerges is clear: Members of the White House are concerned enough about Trump’s capacity to do the job that they’ll leak to prominent reporters, but they’re not concerned enough to muster the courage to tell Trump the truth, or to resign. Congressional Republicans are concerned enough about the things Trump is doing that they’ll signal independence from or displeasure with Trump, but not concerned enough to use real power to stop him, or to keep him honest.
So that’s bad for the rest of us. But Republicans have familiar reasons for not taking general welfare into account.
First, as unpopular as Trump is generally, he is still popular enough among Republican voters to scare Republican officials into complicity.
Second, for all the chaos surrounding Trump, the vast majority of substantive steps he’s taken since assuming the presidency have been steps Republicans are quietly thrilled with. He’s begun destabilizing Obamacare, he’s promoted a net neutrality-opponent to chair the FCC, he’s begun a crackdown on illegal immigration.
These are all steps Trump has the authority to take on his own, and he’s shown a basic willingness to behave like an apparatchik. He nominates conservative true believers to the cabinet; he’ll sign any executive order his advisers place in front of him. Republicans, in other words, have begun enacting an agenda they know to be just as unpopular as Trump. They are acting exactly as you’d imagine a party to act—indeed, as many of us predicted they’d act—if they believed this was their one and only chance to pull off a major heist. Trump’s unexpected victory has provided them with exactly that.
In their ideal world, Republicans would be imposing this agenda on the country with a popular mandate and a president with broad public support. “Whopping majorities,” as McConnell once yearned for.
They don’t have that luxury, but they’re not letting it stop them. To the contrary, if they believed their lack of consensus and popular support were fatal to their agenda, they would have no reason not to jettison Trump before he did irrevocable damage to their party, the country, and the international order. Instead, they will embrace the current arrangement, in all of its recklessness, at least until their agenda is complete—or in ruins.
The alternative—to take a principled stand against Trumpism, at the expense of the platform they’ve waited patiently to enact—would provide them little political protection in the long run. They’d still be members of Trump’s party, but on his enemies’ list and with no substantive gains to show for it. Though Trump promises to be a disastrous president, they ironically have little incentive not to go down with him.
In a perverse and amoral way, the logic of the political suicide mission is self-reinforcing, even if it ultimately fails to meet all of its objectives. Those who carry it out will have gone down for a cause, rather than for their own sense of moral purity. And they know they won’t have to live with the unintended consequences—but everyday Americans will.