What’s a revolution without purges?
Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, held a meeting with major Republican donors and suggested that they conduct a “purge” — his word — of Republican officeholders who are not entirely and enthusiastically on board with the Trump agenda.
That raises the question: What, exactly, is the Trump agenda?
You’d think that would be obvious, but it isn’t — not if you examine the question at any level of detail. The Trump administration had hoped to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but replace it with what? The president has never spelled out a substantive policy view for health-care reform beyond a few elementary-school adjectives: He wants a “terrific” system, he says. Well, that settles that. Tax reform? His “plan” consists of a half-literate memo boasting that some taxpayers will “get a new one-page form to send the IRS saying, ‘I win.’”
So much winning.
Trump has not produced a serious policy proposal for controlling illegal immigration — his hallmark issue — crime, the Islamic State, energy, the deficit and the national debt, entitlements, or anything else. He has tweeted about a great many cable-news personalities, and he has many thoughts about the ratings of various television programs. He must be positively rapt at the news that Fox and Friends is extending its franchise into the wee hours of the morning.
Republicans have not rallied behind the Trump agenda because there isn’t anything to rally behind. The Trump movement is a one part personality cult and one part group-therapy session. It isn’t politics — it’s a nervous breakdown inside the Republican party.
But in this role-playing, Dungeons & Dragons fantasy version of politics, there must be high drama — without the high drama, people might stop for a second and notice that there isn’t anything else to the Trump phenomenon. So, batty men such as Nick Ayers dream aloud of “purges.”
The tendency is familiar enough. In the early days of Russian Communism, when there were still a few genuinely humane revolutionaries on the scene, the Second Soviet Congress voted to abolish capital punishment, which many Communists regarded as a hateful vestige of imperial repression. But the boss was having none of it. “Nonsense,” declared V. I. Lenin. “How can you make a revolution without executions?” Lenin was a great dramatist: “We shall return to terror,” he said, “and to economic terror.”
He adored a good purge.
Nick Ayers may have the same instinct, but his math is a little off. President Trump’s approval ratings are currently at 39 percent. Over the summer, he saw substantial declines in his support in his critical constituencies: down twelve points with evangelicals, down 20 points in working-class areas, down eight points in rural areas, etc. Trump is hurting Republicans’ chances of holding the Senate and is a millstone around the neck of some House candidates.
Or consider the Virginia governor’s race, where 40 percent of the voters say Trump is a substantial factor in their decision. A majority of the voters who say Trump is an important consideration in their choice are voting for the Democrat.
Some people will endure any degradation to stand close to power, however fleeting.
What, exactly, is the case for a “purge” of Republicans who fail a Trump loyalty test? He’s unpopular, he has no substantive agenda, he has been on every conceivable side of issues ranging from abortion to health care to gun control, and his main interest is the service of his vanity. Ayers proposes a midterm bloodletting within the Republican party for that?
Poor Mike Pence. It’s not like his reputation was ever going to recover from his abject, boot-licking performance as Donald Trump’s vice president, but this is the sort of thinking that comes from his chief of staff? To say that Pence has not exhibited exemplary judgment over the past year and a half or so would be generous. Some people will endure any degradation to stand close to power, however fleeting.
Say this for Donald Trump: He has been successful at one thing — bringing American politics down to his level. It’s asinine, childish, and emotionally incontinent, but that is where he is comfortable. One recalls the proverbial advice about wrestling a pig: You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.
If this is the best the Republican party can do in 2018, a purge is indeed the needful thing, but it won’t be the one that Nick Ayers is contemplating.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.