Why do successful insurrectionary movements have a habit of eradicating their zealots and ideologues? Revolutionary movements can only succeed by radicalizing the public against existing power structures. Stable governments tend to see an ungovernable public as a liability, and those whose expertise is rendering the public ungovernable quickly transform from an asset into a menace.
Donald Trump ascended to leadership on the back of a mutiny, but the mutineers are rapidly becoming inconvenient. Following “more than a dozen interviews” with Republicans “inside and outside the White House,” CNN recently revealed that the president’s allies are trying to impress upon him the fact that the prospect of losing the GOP House majority in 2018 represents an existential threat to his presidency. The chief peril those narrow majorities face is coming from inside the tent.
Flush with cash from well-heeled donors, Trump’s former campaign chairman and chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is committed to continuing his war on the “Republican establishment.” Don’t think too hard about the fact that the titular head of the Republican Party, the very personification of the establishment, is the man Bannon once served in the White House. Trump’s more reasonable advisors are trying to communicate to the president that, no matter how much they might irritate one another, his presidency hinges on keeping GOP members from losing their seats. Even unsuccessful primary challenges can weaken incumbents and keep their base voters from turning out enthusiastically for the general election. Bannon and his donors are, therefore, a problem Trump must confront.
Apparently, this advice managed to get through to the president. On Monday, Trump appeared side-by-side with Mitch McConnell at an unscheduled press conference in the Rose Garden. That press conference had no real purpose beyond providing the press with an opportunity to photograph the two Republican leaders together and for them to communicate their unity of purpose. Asked specifically about Bannon’s crusade, Trump said: “I’m going to see if we can talk him out of that.” But events might have progressed beyond Trump’s ability to control them.
Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel is one of Bannon’s potential insurgents. McDaniel ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 and was endorsed by then-television personality Donald Trump. He is now considering a challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker next year. If he runs, McDaniel has confessed that his bid will be funded to the tune of seven figures by the same deep pockets that bankroll Steve Bannon’s activities.
Emboldened by the victory of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore over Trump-endorsed Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama, McDaniel may become the leading edge of a vanguard of insurgents who could deal a significant blow to the “GOP establishment” in upcoming primary elections. In an appearance on MSNBC with host Kasie Hunt on Sunday night, McDaniel echoed the battle cry that has united the right: antipathy toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. What was most instructive, though, were the figures he hoped might replace McConnell as majority leader: Sens. Mike Lee or Rand Paul.
Upon first glance, these two contrarian libertarian members of the upper chamber don’t seem to have much in common with McDaniel. The Mississippi state senator is as much a conservative as a culture warrior: He has defended the representation of the Confederate battle flag in Mississippi’s state flag, railed against “hip hop culture” on a variety of occasions, and has attacked Hollywood for failing to make films with Muslim villains. McDaniel voted against a ban on pseudoephedrine, but not as a result of ideological antipathy toward the drug war. He’s defended the practice of waterboarding terror suspects. He’s supported the death penalty, whereas Rand Paul has expressed his skepticism of it. Mike Lee was among the most vocal Republican opponents of Donald Trump, even going so far as to take his opposition to the floor of the party’s nominating convention.
So what’s the bond that unites these figures? Both Mike Lee and Rand Paul have frustrated the will of Republican leadership in Congress on more than one occasion, the most recent being their combined opposition to a health care reform package that helped to kill the effort entirely. McDaniel has praised these two Senators as examples of principled conservative leaders in the Senate, and they are. It is, however, possible that shared principles are less valuable to McDaniel than shared tactics. Lee and Paul have made themselves thorns in McConnell’s side; McDaniel would like to join them. Insurgency is the chief objective; what the insurgents hope to achieve is secondary.
This is why Trump’s gambit on Monday is ultimately doomed. Republican voters aren’t fools. They know when Trump is doing something he feels forced into—like, say, endorsing an appointed senator in Alabama at Mitch McConnell’s request—and when his heart is in it. Alabama Republicans knew who the truly Trumpian candidate in the race was. Similarly, the grassroots Trump supporter has no reason to believe the president has a stronger ideological bond with the Senate majority leader than he does with his former campaign manager. Donald Trump has lost control of the movement he briefly commandeered, but he hasn’t lost its affections. That can change. If Trump becomes an obstacle to the perpetual insurgency, he may yet become just another of its targets.