Two years ago Donald Trump hijacked the Republican party. Now it’s time to think about what steps might have to be taken to regain control of it.
The tocsin of doom that sounded this week in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District could hardly have been more clear in its meaning: This November the GOP is headed for a mega-shellacking with a side order of drubbing sauce. The fault for this lies almost solely with President Trump. Losing the House looks like a foregone conclusion. Losing the Senate, while unlikely, no longer appears unthinkable. After the Democrats take the House, they will be implacably opposed to making deals, and would we want those anyway? Legislatively, President Trump will be finished. Getting appointments through the Senate won’t be easy.
A reasonably normal Republican president could, at this stage, count on holding the House with ease and expect to pick up three or more Senate seats this fall. Trump can boast that under his watch, ISIS has been all but defeated, domestic or foreign policy crises are absent, the stock market has hit one high after another, unemployment has come down sharply from an already low level, and even crime is falling. And let’s not forget that thanks to El Presidente there were no commercial aviation fatalities last year.
So what? say the voters in PA-18, a district Trump won by 20 points, where the Republican candidate Rick Saccone had no major defects (and the Democratic winner Conor Lamb can be expected to vote with Nancy Pelosi on nearly all occasions) and where Trump’s economically illiterate faith in tariffs is popular. Saccone lost the district anyway. To borrow language from the anthem of Trump’s hometown, if the GOP can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere. It’s because of Trump that the (R) next to Saccone’s name was too great a burden to overcome.
The behavior of the president shouldn’t be all that salient to, say, the candidacies of Democrats who ran and won in the Virginia House of Delegates. But voters can’t be counted on to be rational. There’s essentially only one issue on their minds this year: It’s the personality, stupid. The Chernobyl cloud of noxious presidential behavior is poisoning the party from coast to coast. That Trump’s approval rating is hovering in the high 30s and (very) low 40s is gobsmacking enough considering the sunny economic news, but what’s really disturbing is that his supporters are so unenthused. PA-18 Trump voters simply didn’t show up on Tuesday, yet he’s supplying the Democrats with a turnout motivator like no other.
You think he sounds erratic, angry, and frustrated now? How will he be when Congress becomes intransigent to his calls? It will almost certainly be the case that the incessant wobble that was 2017 goes down in the books as Trump’s best year. As Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times, Trump to this point has been largely contained by Washington as an institution. But the paper’s finest Trumpologist Maggie Haberman, who comprehends the president on a cellular level, notes in a tweet, “The narrative of Trump unglued is not totally wrong but misses the reason why — he was terrified of the job the first six months, and now feels like he has a command of it. So now he is basically saying, ‘I’ve got this, I can make the changes I want.’”
How can any American read that without gulping? All presidents face crises. There’s bound to be an oil spill, a stock market crash, a major terrorist attack, a foreign-policy showdown. Is there any figure whose temperament is worse-suited to leading the nation through such a tense moment? As Douthat put it, the Trump Unbound we’re about to see will make it “more likely that we get more extreme and destabilizing outcomes, somewhere.”
After the November debacle, it’ll be smoke-filled-room time for the senior lawmakers and other grandees of Abraham Lincoln’s party. Although Trump has made strong judicial appointments and signed a tax reform that is boosting the economy, his personality is interfering with his duties as a president, and the voters are right to notice this and take it seriously. How much longer can the GOP tolerate having a de facto party leader — much less a president — who recklessly taunts the North Koreans, brazenly makes up facts even when meeting with the leaders of other countries, picks silly fights with celebrities and television personalities and even his own cabinet members, is too impatient to read briefing books, and possesses the moral compass of a crocodile? I could go on, but this column is supposed to be 900 words, not 157,000.
A presidential candidate even marginally better at politics than Hillary Clinton would easily defeat Trump in 2020, which also aligns as an extremely auspicious year for the Democrats in the Senate, presenting a high degree of likelihood that the Democrats will enjoy unchecked power in Washington. The party needs to think about how denying Trump its nomination in 2020 might be a last-ditch tactic for heading off that catastrophic scenario, which could well lead to nationalized health care or some other debacle.
Surely the most vigorous of Trump fans cannot help noticing that he is burning down everything around him. What good is a president who makes it impossible for the rest of his party? Even Tom Brady couldn’t win a game if he looked to his line and discovered there were only three teammates left. Trump has a proven inability to help other Republican candidates get elected, and most will ask him not to try. The president is a cement jumpsuit that is dragging us all to the bottom.