If there’s one thing Donald Trump has been consistently good at over 40-plus years in public life it’s been finding other people to pick up the downside of his bad or failed investments and projects. Sometimes that process has simply been crafty and ingenious. Other times it’s amounted to criminal fraud. Most often it’s been some combination of both. We now appear to be moving toward Trump’s most audacious attempt to accomplish the same thing – only now with the Republican party.
According to a lot of public evidence – and now, according to people in the Trump entourage who spoke to The Washington Post – Trump is trying to separate himself from the Republican Congress to stick them with the blame if the GOP agenda falters and little or nothing gets passed in 2017 or 2018. I’ve tried to think through what we’re hearing with these stories. Because on their face, as a strategy that is straight up crazy.
Presidents are the visible symbols in politics. They get the blame and the credit – to a significant degree regardless of their role in whatever they’re blamed or credited for. A president’s congressional party usually takes the hit in a midterm election when things go badly. But that is largely a referendum on the President and his party. They’re the only ones on the ballot. For most voters, the two – party and president – are close to indistinguishable.
Beyond this, to the extent that voters punish a President’s party somehow in contra-distinction to him, it’s hard to see how the President gets the last laugh. After all, especially in today’s partisan political context, a President’s ability to pass legislation depends entirely on support from his own party and almost certainly on having his party in the majority. Not only that, especially in Trump’s case, he relies on his party for protection from oversight and investigation. Perhaps even impeachment. In other words, having the GOP take the fall for the failures of his own presidency is an entirely illusory gambit. To the extent it ‘works’, it only does so in the sense that the congressional party is the only one available to get damaged at the ballot box. There’s not reason to believe it redounds to the President’s benefit. It just deepens the damage to his own party since the party’s most prominent voice – an incumbent President of that party – is arguing the case against it, rather than in its defense. Punishing his own party makes as much sense as cutting off his own arms.
Now, it’s true that President Clinton tried so-called ‘triangulation’ and many think it worked for him politically. But at least as it’s remembered, if not entirely accurately, that was positioning between the two parties in an attempt to play one off the other. President Trump is probably more toxic to the opposition party than any President in American history. Every bridge is burned on that front. So there’s no playing anyone off another. Trump is just going to war against his own party in what looks less like strategy than a fit of rage.
What is all comes down to is whether Trump came by this by strategy or impulse, it’s a comically self-destructive ploy. Cutting off his own arms, pulling the temple down on himself – pick your metaphor. It amounts to the same thing.
The other point to consider is that Trump is extremely unpopular. I’ve heard people refer to polls that show Congress is even more unpopular. But that’s silly. Congress has consistently been in the low double digits for years. What’s new is that the President is even close to that low. There’s nothing magic about the Gallup poll. But it comes out daily and it’s one consistent measure. So I’ve followed it closely under Trump. Yesterday was the third day of his presidency under 35% approval, the 7th day under 36%. Five of those seven days under 36% were in the last week. Trump is extremely unpopular and still dropping. His ability to leverage his own popularity in struggle with his own party is basically nil.
What Trump does have the ability to do is break things. Even a struggling President with little support has vast powers. Going to war with his own party, or at least with its congressional leadership, seems most likely to do great damage to both the President and his party in what amounts to a GOP civil war. But it’s important to remember that more than the leader of his party, Trump is the leader of the country. Whether or not you consider him ‘your’ president is irrelevant for these purposes. He has the powers of the presidency. If the current pattern holds – and there’s vanishingly little reason to suspect it won’t – Trump will lash out more as he becomes more embattled and more people turn on him. There doesn’t seem to be any course corrective mechanism in play here where sufficient unpopularity or chaos leads Trump to shift course. The more chaos, unpopularity and abandonment, the more he accelerates the actions and direction which led to them in the first place. It’s a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating cycle. Since Trump’s rage is his singular trait, he’ll likely seek to destroy those around him even if he goes down too. And you’re one of those people around him.