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The Unacceptable Cost of “Taming” Trump

If the Republicans have contained the president at all, it's because they agreed to shield him from investigation.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has enjoyed a small bump in the polls since December, hitting a 40 percent in Gallup’s weekly approval rating for the first time since May 2017. But Trump’s improved numbers are still a testament to how polarizing his presidency is, since this slight rise is due to rallying Republicans. As Gallup notes, Trump’s approval among Republicans rose to 90 percent after the State of the Union speech, but Democrats’ approval of Trump “remained extremely low at 6% last week, while independents’ 33% approval was unchanged.”

These numbers illustrate one of the most defining features of the current political era: the durability and intensification of Trump’s bond with the Republican Party. Over the course of his first year, Trump and the GOP have become one. Abandoning his many unorthodox stances as a candidate, Trump has adopted the policy agenda of conventional conservative Republicans, and in turn he’s been rewarded with the nearly unwavering support of the Republican base and the congressional GOP.

The consequence of this fusion is that any judgement on the president also applies to the Republicans. If you think Trump is corrupt and authoritarian, then you have to reject not just the president but his party. That’s the logic that led two resolutely non-partisan writers, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, to advocate in The Atlantic that Americans vote a straight ticket for the Democratic Party in all elections “until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former).”

“The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy,” they argue, which means “the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold.”

Responding at Crooked Media, Brian Beutler wonders if even a thorough electoral drubbing would do the trick, since the extra-political institutional structure that allowed the Republicans to erode democratic norms would still be in place: “In a world where Sean Spicer remains respectably employable, corporate America loves regressive tax cuts, mainstream news outlets refuse to make pariahs of people who seek their destruction, and the cult of false equivalence remains the analytic foundation of political journalism, voters can ‘boycott’ Republicans in historic numbers, only to watch Republicans return to power unreformed a few years later.”

If Beutler thinks Rauch and Wittes offer a solution insufficient for the scale of the problem, the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat believes the opposite. According to him, the Republican Party isn’t tainted by Trump’s bad deeds, but deserves credit for successfully containing a dangerous president.

In “The Taming of a Demagogue,” Douthat writes that Trump has been “weak and trammeled and conventional in policy,” and most of his worst authoritarian instincts have been held in check. He provides a long list of authoritarian promises Trump hasn’t met: “reinstating waterboarding and allowing torture, even over military objections; shaking up NATO and striking a deal that abandons American allies to a Russian sphere of influence; pulling the United States out of Nafta; changing libel laws to make it easier to bankrupt his critics in the press; launching a major trade war with China; pulling the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal; installing cronies and relatives in high judicial posts; banning Muslim entry to the United States; and deporting millions of illegal immigrants in an enormous sweep.”

Some of these are debatable, especially on immigration. Trump hasn’t gone as far as he wanted to, thanks in large part to the courts, but there is a limited Muslim ban of sorts and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is out of control.

But the larger problem with Douthat’s argument is that it ignores that the partial containment of Trump has come at a heavy price. The Republicans in Congress have an implicit deal with Trump: So long as he governs in keeping with the party’s conservative orthodoxy, they’ll protect him from allegations of personal corruption and collusion with Russia. That’s why Republican Congressman Devin Nunes released a deceptive memo designed to cast doubt on Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation.

Beyond the Mueller investigation, congressional Republicans are also shielding Trump from scrutiny over his self-enrichment as president. As Greg Sargent notes in The Washington Post, “Trump’s original refusal to release his tax returns, his refusal to divest in his holdings and the nonstop continued self-dealing have produced a situation in which we cannot know how much he and his family are directly profiting off of many facets of his actions in office. Republicans have done nothing meaningful about any of those things. In some cases they have actively blocked efforts to force transparency.”

This protection of the president, by the branch of government tasked with holding him accountable, shows the danger of the fusion of Trump and the GOP. If one accepts Douthat’s claim that the GOP has contained Trump, then one must also accept that the party is complicit in all of the president’s misdeeds—including those that have yet to be verified or unearthed. Trump’s authoritarianism, corruption, and general unfitness for office is manifest to conservative thinkers like Douthat, Republicans on Capitol Hill, and even to those who work for him. And yet most of them, in ways subtle or outrageous, have defended the president. Surely, this has not been lost on voters—a majority of them, the polls suggest. So even those who accept the optimistic case that Trump has been contained will have every reason to support the conclusion that the Republican Party as a whole must pay for its collusion with the president.