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Trump one, Republicans zero

  • Published at 07:13 pm November 15th, 2017
Trump one, Republicans zero
It is going on a year since Donald Trump was elected president, to the surprise of a great many of us, and to the Republican Party whose nominee he was, and I suspect of Mr Trump himself. Although he was the Republicans’ standard bearer, he espoused very little of the orthodox Republican ideology or the party’s traditional political agenda -- the core of which was limited government, limited immigration, free markets, and free trade. Instead, Trump professed a much narrower and radically different ideology than that of the standard Republican platform, combining some traditional Republican policies such as tax reform (which was, and remains, a euphemism for tax cuts primarily for wealthier citizens), repealing “Obamacare,” and espousing a stronger national defense. This ideology contained elements of nationalism, populism, nativism, and white supremacy (though it was never called this in the campaign), which were decidedly not traditional Republican positions. Wrong predictions Many analysts considered the contradictory nature of the Trump/Republican Party agenda and platform during the election campaign as unworkable and unmanageable, and predicted one of two possible mutations of the Trump regime after it took office in January 2017. The majority of these analysts expected that the party would win this seeming paradox, bring to heel a party leader who was seriously out of step, because it controlled both houses of congress, and could control the policy process through its control of the legislative agenda. In other words, in this analytic model, President Trump would slowly turn into a real Republican and become the engine that turns the conservative Republican agenda into the law of the land. A smaller group of analysts suspected that Trump was too strong a personality to become the passive carrier of the agenda of others, and that his forceful personality would endanger Republican Party unity to the point that the party might break up.
In the meantime, Trump’s general popularity has slipped to all-time lows. Another year of do-nothing government might just end the one-party rule
That party has become, after all, a patchwork of ideological fiefdoms, held together by just a few commonly held ideas, and is divided by strong disagreements over others. It would not be the first time a major party has broken up in US history. But in the latest political goings-on, the truth is one none of us imagined: The Republican Party has converted to Trumpism. Instead of the party-taming Mr Trump, or breaking up when not able to tame him, he has tamed the party and converted it to his own tool. He appears to own it now, except for a few stalwart and courageous Republican senators who have denounced him, but only after also announcing they will not stand for re-election the next time around. Former President George W Bush has denounced Trump as a “divider” and other prominent Republicans who do not hold office have joined the chorus, as have a number of conservative commentators in the media. Yet none of this seems to matter. A Republican unifier? The Republicans are now Trumpians. When a Republican cannot abide this, he or she has to leave the party, and their Republican seat. State legislatures, when controlled by Republicans, have used the decennial national census to draw voting districts to the advantage of their party. In this way, the Republicans have quietly ensured that they hold a significant advantage in congressional elections. So while, in recent years, while the demographic changes favour the Democrats in presidential elections, the Republicans have quietly assured their continued dominance in congress. The Republicans have kept control of the House, and sometimes the Senate, although the numbers remain much closer in the Senate for much of the time of this century. Those leaving the party and Congress, mostly from the already depleted ranks of Republican moderates, have come to realise that Trump is not an aberration, but is remaking the party into one that more closely conforms to his personal weltanschauung which melds some of the former elements of the core Republican agenda with his own nationalist, nativist, populist outlook. The president has the advantage primarily because he sensed early what angered Republican primary voters and played to those sensitivities. His primary opponents, on the other hand, talked of the traditional agenda. Trump’s overall historically low approval ratings do not belie the fact that the Republican Party is his, at least for awhile. Recent polls show that among Republican and likely Republican voters, almost 60% stated they were more supporters of Trump than of the Party. Trump has unified the party, in one sense, that any Republican thinking of resisting him on some legislation he is pushing, will think long and carefully before doing so, and will then begin a job search after the next election. But him subsuming the party hasn’t really made much difference in his ability to get his own agenda through Congress and into law. For one thing, the White House policy apparatus is a mess. For another, the Congressional Republicans may be under his whip hand in terms of primaries, but there are factions whose ideology will trump (pun intended) his pressure on certain issues. On tax reform, for example, factions dedicated to holding the line on the federal deficit are unlikely to support the tax reform bill as presently drafted as it would add trillions to the deficit in the out years. These Republicans cannot be bullied because their voters feel as strongly about the deficit as they do. Yes, all Republicans want tax reform and a large tax cut, but it will be difficult for them to agree on a bill that meets their electoral needs. And the party will have the same problem with most major legislation. In the meantime, Trump’s general popularity has slipped to all-time lows. Another year of do-nothing government might just end the one-party rule and give the House back to the Democrats. But, of course, the other party is not unified, and as one of my favorite columnists said recently, “[D]on’t underestimate the ability of the Democrats to make a mess of things.” In other words, unless the Democrats find a coherent voice and a coherent policy approach, they could well lose an election that should be theirs for the taking. After all, they did the same thing only last year. William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article first appeared in The Friday Times.