Throughout his short political career, Donald Trump has fancied himself an insurgent.
When Trump sought and captured control of the Republican Party, he did so as an outsider challenging the institution’s prevailing ethos. But his outlook and comportment didn’t change with success. Trump never tired of attacking establishmentarian sentiments within his own party even when he became the chief representative of a new establishment. In the White House, he heckled his own administration as though he wasn’t at its helm. Even now, as Trump is seeking to preserve his influence over American political culture, he is doing so from an implicit position of weakness.
As Trump privately broods over his defeat and indulges his most satisfying post-presidential revenge fantasies, reports indicate that the president is most frustrated not by the Republican officeholders who presided over the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, the Democratic members of Congress who impeached him, the left-wing press that insisted he was a Russian agent, or his co-partisans who wouldn’t credulously echo his baseless claims of mass voter fraud. The focus of his rage is, of all things, Fox News.
“He wants to make them pay,” a source close to the president told Axios reporter Jonathan Swan. Fox—in particular, its straight-news anchors—preoccupy the president, in part, because they’ve failed to legitimize evidence-free assertions designed to invalidate the election’s results. Trump has rejected entreaties of peace coming from “the highest levels” of the network, preferring instead to boost its competitors in the conservative cable news space. The president has even entertained creating a competitor of his own.
Trump’s motive—vengeance—is clear enough. But the means by which he would have his revenge place Trump outside the citadel throwing rocks at its walls. If Donald Trump didn’t reject institutionalism in all forms, he would be well-positioned to assume the role as the one figure who can unite the right’s disparate (and occasionally warring) factions—a condition that Fox News reflects in miniature. But rather than co-opt the network by commanding the affections of its audience, he’s chosen to go to war with the institution—a powerful one, at that, with the capacity to defend its interests.
It’s not as emotionally satisfying as a fit of pique, perhaps, but Trump would doubtlessly be better positioned to preserve his influence over Fox News if he wasn’t making himself into a threat to the network’s bottom line.
Likewise, Donald Trump’s influence over the Republican Party he still nominally leads has always had an element of coercion to it. Trump’s character and ideals may not perfectly align with those of more collegial Republicans in Congress, but he has the support of their voters. This marriage of convenience does not have to end in mutual acrimony, but Trump seems determined to make it so. And in the effort to litigate his grievances, Trump and his allies are once again operating from a position of weakness.
Shortly after the New Year, the next Congress will convene to ratify the results of the 2020 presidential election as certified by the Electoral College. It is the last opportunity for Republican lawmakers to display their fealty to Trump and his lost cause, and Mitch McConnell is having none of it.
According to congressional staffers familiar with the deliberations inside the Republican conference, McConnell has urged his colleagues to refrain from objecting to the certification of the vote on the sound assumption that it would be a lose-lose situation for the GOP. Voting with certification would be seen as siding against Trump, painting a target on their backs. Voting against certification would be an assault on America’s political institutions as well as a display of impotence, as the objectors would surely lose. McConnell is an effective steward of his conference, and no Senate Republican has shown any willingness to challenge him. All, that is, save one:
“You’ll see what’s coming,” said Alabama Senator-elect Tommy Tuberville. “You’ve been reading about it in the House,” he added, referencing a likely challenge to the 2020 elections from a rump caucus within the House minority. “We’re going to have to do it in the Senate.” “It’s impossible. It is impossible what happened,” the incoming senator later said of the sequence of events that produced President-elect Joe Biden. “But we’re going to get that corrected.”
Once again, Trump and his allies are not seeking to exercise the president’s considerable influence over the Republican conference in the Senate, which could be preserved for the low, low cost of acknowledging the inevitability of Biden’s ascension to the White House. Instead, they are on the outside looking in and making powerful enemies in the process.
Maybe Tuberville just didn’t get the memo, and the incentives and inducements at McConnell’s disposal are likely to help him see the light in short order. But the Senate majority is still on the line in Georgia, and the president’s refusal to be a team player is starting to become a costly affair. Literally.
Both Trump and his still-active campaign are pulling out all the stops to raise money from their supporters ahead of the January 5 runoff elections in the Peach State, but those funds are not going to Republican committees or the two GOP senators fighting to keep their seats. Most of the proceeds, Politico reported, are being diverted to the president’s PAC and, presumably, his future political endeavors. “The reality is Donald Trump does not care about the future of the Republican Party,” GOP strategist Doug Heye told the outlet.
Trump’s actions only make it more likely that the GOP will come to the realization that their tense but mutually beneficial union has reached the point of diminishing returns. Trump is assuming he can antagonize powerful institutions and their leaders, much the way he did in 2016, while winning the support of their constituents. This time, however, he is not executing a hostile takeover of the GOP alone but laying siege to multiple targets at once, most of which have the resources to withstand a prolonged onslaught. What’s more, despite their table-pounding, the president and his allies seem psychologically invested in their status as underdogs. That, more than anything Trump has said since his November loss, represents a tacit admission that the president’s influence is declining rapidly. Either that or Trump really is tired of winning.