Nearly two and half years since his political career began, and more than ten months since his inauguration, does anyone really think the latest outrageous thing done or said by President Donald Trump matters anymore? The answer from his core supporters, and even many Republicans who are privately disgusted with the president’s conduct, is clearly no. Even those in the GOP who don’t share the base’s delight with his willingness to be offensive have come to the conclusion that the anger his conduct generates in the press and among his opponents has no real impact on his ability to govern. Far from a liability, they still believe, his slaughtering of sacred cows is an asset.
But after the last few days — in which, once again, Trump stepped on his message and distracted the public from the progress made toward passage of a tax-reform bill, from and anything else the administration cares about, with statements and tweets that made headlines — it’s time to question those assumptions. The future of Trump’s presidency may not hinge solely on reactions to his calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” at a ceremony honoring Native American war heroes, or on his reported statements questioning the authenticity of the embarrassing Access Hollywood tape, for which he had already apologized. Nor will his shocking retweets of anti-Muslim videos posted by a British extremist leader by itself destroy the alliances necessary for American foreign policy to succeed.
Yet the notion that the cumulative weight of these and a host of other outrages can have no political consequences is an act of faith on the part of Trump loyalists, not a sober assessment of the damage he is doing to himself and to Republicans’ hopes that their control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can last beyond 2018. Far from merely generating political noise with no impact on policy, Trump’s inability to stay on message or avoid improper behavior is gradually having the effect of limiting his support to the approximately one-third of the public that are his true believers.
The argument that nothing Trump does can damage him is backed up by the results of the 2016 campaign. Gaffes and scandals that would have destroyed a normal candidate did not prevent him from prevailing. The more he stepped outside the boundaries that constrain conventional politicians, the better his fans liked him, because this reinforced his status as an outsider determined to overthrow the establishment. Other Republicans concluded, not unreasonably, that defeating Hillary Clinton and potentially achieving conservative policy objectives was more important than their scruples about his conduct.
That formula still holds today as, despite opinion polls showing Trump stuck below 40 percent in approval ratings, the overwhelming majority of Republican voters are still behind him. Many are unmoved by incidents such as the ill-timed “Pocahontas” crack or even the anti-Muslim retweets, because they see the anger over these incidents as an expression of either political correctness or a desire on the part of the media and the Left to silence worries about Islamist extremism.
Trump’s achievements — though meager by the standard of legislation passed by most of his predecessors in their first year in office — are also more than enough to cause most in the GOP to treat the president’s faults as an acceptable price to pay for putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, along with the reversal of many Obama policies and victory over ISIS.
But while Trump’s avid supporters and reluctant allies are right to think that those who live inside the conservative-media cocoon will never be persuaded to abandon the president no matter what he does, they are wrong if they think the narrative of dysfunction and immaturity that has been created by his Twitter account isn’t doing damage to GOP prospects.
In 2016 we saw how a Republican could narrowly win the presidency by holding the conservative base and appealing to working-class whites when faced with a lackluster opponent without the ability to mobilize the Democrats’ base. Yet since then, Trump’s base has contracted rather than expanded, as one would expect once he was gifted with the legitimacy that the presidency normally confers on those who enter the White House.
The more he tweets and blabs insensitive and foolish things, the more it is becoming possible that 2018 will be a wave election that will hand the House of Representatives back to the Democrats.
Nor has he been able to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to establish an aura of competence or a sense that the country is in good hands. To the contrary, the tweets and the gaffes have fed a narrative that Trump is out of control.
It’s also true that some of those who tolerated Trump’s unorthodox manner as a candidate are less amused by seeing the commander in chief float conspiracy theories — such as the discredited smear that Joe Scarborough was involved in the death of a young woman, or the birther lie about Barack Obama — or lending credibility to far-right extremists.
With each such absurdity, Trump chips away not only at his own stature but also at the ability of his party to unite Republicans or to win independents and centrist Democrats.
Part of that can and will be blamed by his supporters on a mainstream liberal media that is biased against Trump. But it is also true that their efforts would be far less successful if the president were not feeding them material with which they can portray his presidency as a disgrace even in weeks, like this one, when he is on the verge of a major success.
The assumption that a Trump presidency could consolidate or expand Republican control of Congress — the necessary predicate for any of the policies or changes that conservatives claim to want to implement — is being undermined primarily by Trump, not the criticisms of his opponents. Each episode of Trump behaving poorly and demonstrating bad judgment — such as the tweets that can be interpreted as an embrace of a conflict with all Muslims rather than just Islamists — obscures his achievements and reinforces the image of his administration as a circus.
Perhaps even more important is a factor that most conservatives seem to ignore. Trump is providing an otherwise leaderless and intellectually bankrupt Democratic party with exactly what it lacked in 2016: the ability to mobilize its base of minorities and educated whites by giving them a reason to turn out in the kind of numbers they failed to do for Hillary Clinton.
Trump fans may love it, but the more he tweets and blabs insensitive and foolish things, the more it is becoming possible that 2018 will be a wave election that will hand the House of Representatives back to the Democrats.
None of this legitimizes a leftist “resistance” that opposes conservative policies as much as it opposes Trump himself and aims at what is, for all intents and purposes, a coup that will delegitimize the 2016 election results. But even if you are unmoved by arguments about Trump’s undermining the moral argument for Republicans by causing them to discard a belief in the politics of virtue, it is impossible to ignore the way his behavior is enabling a Democratic comeback that could make 2019 a year largely defined by their attempts to impeach the president. If so, that will mean the end of any hope, for the foreseeable future, of conservatives to enact the sort of changes their voters intended when they handed the government to Trump and the current congressional majorities.
Try as they might to ignore the writing on the wall, Republicans can’t pretend that a president who continues to behave in a manner that a clear majority of Americans believe is disgraceful won’t have serious consequences for those who have linked themselves to him. If Trump continues to be Trump, and there’s no sign he can be reined in, Republicans are bound to pay a price for it.