As hostile takeovers go, Donald Trump’s acquisition of the Republican Party was a strange one. The GOP’s shareholders—e.g. voters—approved of the transition, but the old management who resisted this procurement remains in place. When Trump was elected to the presidency after a rocky campaign, equilibrium was quickly reestablished around a shared understanding: The relationship between Trump and the GOP was to be a transactional one. The president would keep the party’s restless and discontented voters in the tent and, in return, the Republican Party would make the president look good. That covenant is coming apart.
Initially, the Republican end of this bargain took the form of putting long-sought legislation on the president’s desk. Perhaps a mutually beneficial condition could emerge in which Republicans got their preferred reforms and Trump could take credit for them. Thus, House Speaker Paul Ryan set an ambitious agenda for this new age of Republican dominance in Washington. The Trump era was to begin with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, crescendo with an infrastructure bill that included The Wall, and culminate in the reform of the immigration system, the tax code, and the Internal Revenue Service—all before the end of 2017. Today, it seems the 115th Congress’s only significant legislative achievement will be a scaled-back version of tax-code reform; no small feat, but not the ambitious revamp of the social compact cautiously envisioned by Republicans on November 9, 2016.
Symbiosis was never meant to be. Congressional Republicans were not as united on a post-Obama agenda as they thought they were. Moreover, the new leader of their party seems to love the theater of politics more than the practical responsibilities of governance. Trump likes to hold rallies where he attacks proposed Republican legislation for lacking “heart” and needing “more money,” but he seems disinclined to study the details of the legislation on which he is opining. Trump likes to hold televised meetings where he betrays his ignorance not just on policy particulars but on the elementary jargon legislators use to describe their processes. In those meetings, Trump has endorsed comprehensive immigration reform measures and draconian gun-control policies that Democrats have supported for years. Only after he is informed of what ought to be his position by Republicans who care about legislative outcomes does the president try to repair the damage he has done.
The burden on Republicans is growing as Trump shirks his end of the deal. At this moment, the president is rejecting the well-meaning advice of virtually the entire Republican Party in his quest to fulfill yet another long-held Democratic objective: tariffs on the importation of heavy metals to artificially increase the number of unionized manufacturing jobs.
The Republicans who support these and other market-distorting measures claim that condescending intellectuals are blinkered by ideology and look down on the sacrifices made by the working class in the era of globalized commerce. In fact, opposing these tariffs is the non-ideological position; the Republican members who oppose Trump’s agenda do so for practical reasons. They represent constituencies that will be hurt by making virtually every consumer product more expensive and opening the doors to reciprocal punitive measures against American exports. In fact, the ideological position is Donald Trump’s. It requires a steadfast commitment to the prejudices that masquerade as Trumpian philosophy to dismiss those practical concerns.
Meanwhile, Republicans are required to serve as blocking tackles for this administration in ways that they will come to regret. In deflecting from Donald Trump’s failures, the GOP has adopted the obsessive suspicion he exhibited well before taking the oath of office. Incautious Republicans have taken a matter of grave significance—the potential misuse of opaque espionage courts to achieve domestic political ends—and mangled it in a nakedly partisan effort to convince the public that the government over which they have total control is out to get them.
From the Bureau of Labor Statistics to the FBI to his own Justice Department, Donald Trump compels Republican lawmakers to allege a “conspiracy” is afoot, all in the effort to make fevered paranoiacs out of their voters. In the effort to protect Donald Trump and the incompetents with whom he surrounded himself in the earliest days of his campaign, Republicans have politicized apolitical processes like the civilian oversight of the intelligence community. Reportedly, Republican members of the House intelligence committee have passed sensitive information to Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, and even released Senator Mark Warner’s personal texts to the press. These are precedents that cannot be undone; they will come to haunt Republicans.
For Trump, his relationship with the GOP was one of convenience. For the GOP—particularly after Trump won the party’s presidential nomination—it was one of necessity. If the president knows one thing intuitively, it is power dynamics; he’s aware of the imbalance in his favor. The lopsided burden on Republicans is becoming a hard one to justify.