As the darkest day of this blogger's times approaches, T. A. Frank offers a scouting report on the who will be loyal or disloyal to Il Douche. Of course, this blogger wishes misfortune on all of their houses, but there is a morbid curiosity that is akin to watching a horror film. If this is (fair & balanced) political analysis, so be it.
What The GOP Really Thinks Of Trump Or, Frenemies Of Trump
By T. T. Frank
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
I’ve had conversations with a number of Republicans over the past couple of weeks, and they all seem to have the same questions the rest of us do. Will Trump’s coalition be one of establishment Republicans and rebel Republicans? Or one of rebel Republicans and Bernie Sanders Democrats? Or one of something else entirely? Trump doesn’t know, and neither does anyone else. “I think we are feeling our way along,” said Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole. “Just looking at it from a whip standpoint, it’s going to be a very different dynamic in terms of putting together a Republican coalition.”
The Senate is a beast of its own, and some of Trump’s fiercest enemies there are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain. So let’s focus in this column on Republicans in the House. Very roughly speaking, what awaits Trump there are three groups. The first, a small one, loves his populist vision and intends to hold him to it on all fronts. The second, slightly larger, is made up of Republicans who are anywhere from half to three-quarters on board—they like Trump’s line on trade, or immigration, or nationalism more broadly, while dissenting on Trumpian policies on spending, or taxes, or tariffs, or Russia. A third faction doesn’t buy into populism at all and seems to view Trump like an uncontrolled bull, one they hope to rig up to a generator and harness for GOP energy. I’ll call them the Trumpists, the Freedomists, and the Ryanists.
Start with the Trumpists. Prior to the ascension of Trump, and before it had a name, Trumpism—a Pat Buchanan–esque philosophy of economic and military self-containment—was just one school of thought among Republican outliers in the House and Senate. Those who easily fit the category were few in number—fewer than five, would be my guess, and arguably as few as zero, if you define it narrowly enough. Jeff Sessions, who in 2013 advised Republicans to choose a “humble and honest populism” over Gang of Eight–style immigration bills, is one of them. Tennessee congressman Jimmy Duncan, a trade skeptic and reliable foe of illegal immigration—plus one of few Republicans to vote against authorizing George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq—is arguably another. There are a few more. But, again, it’s a small group.
This makes the Trumpists important mainly as keepers of the flame. Whatever Trump does, he wants to keep this group on board. One line that I encountered when speaking to people in this orbit was that deficit spending on infrastructure would be necessary as a bandage during hard times. That is to say: putting the brakes on globalization—with tariffs, revised trade deals, and stricter immigration control—could play near-term havoc with the economy, even if it causes longer-term benefits. The way to ease the transition is to create lots of jobs—in the construction and repair of roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines, and airports. While that is going on—in this hopeful scenario—the private sector will complete most of its adaptations and emerge in a couple of years ready to hire, with shiny new roads and bridges at its disposal to boot. This would require tolerating considerable deficit spending, which could mean losing Republican support but gaining some among Democrats, especially those who represent working-class districts.
It’s all very simple, in theory, but such plans run with a thud into group two, which I’ll call the “Freedomists.” (No one in Congress, to my knowledge, goes by such a label, but I’m using it as a catchall for Republicans who dissent from the establishment.) These include the Tea Party caucus, although it exists more in name than in action, and the House Freedom Caucus, which was founded two years ago and has about 30 members. The Freedomists generally espouse limited government, and they have rebelled against Republican leadership on various issues, leading the charge to oust John Boehner as House Speaker in 2015. But the strongest glue bonding them has been fiscal hawkishness. (South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney, who is among their number, will be Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.)
Many of the Freedomists are sympathetic to Trump. They know what it’s like to battle the establishment, and most see themselves as advocates for the little guy. Virginia congressman Dave Brat, famous as the underdog who defeated donor-class favorite Eric Cantor during a primary in 2014, is among them. Brat and his supporters view illegal immigration as a gift to the cheap-labor lobby, which, as Brat reminded me in conversation, gets all the benefits of low-paid employees while palming off the large attendant costs—an average of $10,000 a year to send each child of these workers to school—on middle-class taxpayers. Brat is also generally excited by the populism of the Trump movement and told me that he fears mainly that the kludgeocracy of Washington will impede efforts to create real change. But if Trump is hoping to levy trade tariffs or raise the debt ceiling, Brat is unlikely to join him. “When it comes to sticking points, the debt ceiling is going to be it,” he says. “There would have to be some credible commitment to a pro-growth corporate-rate bill that has a trillion in repatriation or something like that to get my buy-in. Otherwise, it’s a no.”
As Brat and many other Freedomists see it, doing away with regulations that hamstring U.S. industry will make it competitive and equip it to fight off competition from China. In this view, no tariffs will be required, nor will we need any infrastructure stimulus, at least not one that involves increasing deficits. Simply cutting red tape and regulations will unleash an economic boom in itself and revive labor markets at home. If there are tough times for a year or two, we ride them out. Proposals to increase deficit spending will therefore cause a lot of Freedomists to jump ship, and some of them, like Walter Jones, have a record of doing so even when George W. Bush was in power. Since they are over 30 in number, the Freedomists can stand in the way of party-line legislation. Quite possibly, then, Trump will find that the Freedom Caucus are supporters in spirit but obstacles in practice.
This leaves the establishment GOP, now called the Ryanists. In theory, the Ryanist GOP is Trump’s biggest headache, since it’s as in thrall to Bushism today as it was 15 years ago, happy to continue down the current path on trade, war, and immigration, with a repeal of Obamacare and cuts to Social Security and (by using vouchers) Medicare to boot. In practice, though, this faction of the party, which is by far the largest, is probably easiest to work with on deals. The question, then, is who trades what. If Trump gets his infrastructure bill, will the establishment demand a swifter repeal of Obamacare, for instance? The answer depends a lot on clout. Supporters of Trump would argue that the recent election proved that most Republican voters—to say nothing of most Americans—reject the establishment priorities. Supporters of the establishment would argue that establishment Republicans keep getting elected, so voters are with them.
Working in favor of the establishment members of the House and Senate is that the money is largely on their side, that Washington doesn’t change, and that they have much more seasoning in politics than Trump. Most try to live by the famous adage of Texas legislator Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr., father of Lyndon, who said, “You can’t be in politics unless you can walk in a room and know in a minute who’s for you, and who’s against you.” For all of Trump’s success in business, no one knows if he’s got anything close to Sam Johnson’s skill when it comes to navigating the labyrinth of legislative deal-making, even if he’s got Mike Pence at his side.
In Trump’s favor, though, is that he’s got an army of ardent fans who are prepared to direct a storm at anyone who defies their man. This is one reason why Trump went on a thank-you tour after the election. It was to keep these supporters energized for the clash of swords that starts in January. Also, despite having the thinnest skin of any politician ever to advance beyond the neighborhood-council level, Trump comes across as much shrewder than Ryan, even when he’s weakened. In early October, when Trump was in the biggest trouble he’d ever faced, Ryan still seemed like the feckless one, while Trump stayed on the warpath. “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary,” he tweeted on October 11. “They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win—I will teach them!” And, arguably, he did just that.
Watching this battle play out will offer us fascinating lessons on the workings of power. (Forgive the cold word choice, but it’s a bleak truth that periods of human suffering and peril are those to which historians are most drawn—hence the curse of “interesting times.”) “I think most Republicans thought they were going to be a firewall against Hillary Clinton’s overreach,” says Cole, the deputy majority whip. “Now all of a sudden they’ve got to be the point of the spear. And they’re going to be confronted with some dilemmas they didn’t anticipate.”
While the skirmishes and scheming will take place in whispered conferences in rooms all around downtown Washington, DC, what comes to mind is an image of armies, swords drawn, unleashing a war cry and launching headlong into a battle of all against all. This all starts the day after the inauguration. You can almost hear the horses stomping. ###
[T.A. Frank, a Vanity Fair contributor who covers politics and policy, also has written for The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Weekly Standard, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Monthly. In 2010, Frank ended a term as an Irvine Fellow at the The New America Foundation. He holds a BA (East Asian studies) from Columbia University.]
Copyright © 2017 Vanity Fair/Condé Nast Digital
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..
Copyright © 2017 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves