Steve Bannon, center. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Back when Republicans were fretting about Donald Trump’s ideological inconsistencies and lack of devotion to conservative orthodoxy, one might have predicted that if he became president there would be constant tension within the Republican world, as everyone sought to shape administration policy and maximize his or her own influence. That looks to be true — just not quite in the way we thought it would be. Instead of conservatives outside the administration pressuring Trump to adhere to conservative principles, we may see a situation where the pressure moves in a different direction, enforcing unanimity behind Trump’s agenda, whatever it may turn out to be. Rachael Bade reports today that there’s already a system being constructed to punish anyone on the right who questions Trump:

Since the election, numerous congressional Republicans have refused to publicly weigh in on any Trump proposal at odds with Republican orthodoxy, from his border wall to his massive infrastructure package. The most common reason, stated repeatedly but always privately: They’re afraid of being attacked by Breitbart or other big-name Trump supporters.

“Nobody wants to go first,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who received nasty phone calls, letters and tweets after he penned an August op-ed in The New York Times, calling on Trump to release his tax returns. “People are naturally reticent to be the first out of the block for fear of Sean Hannity, for fear of Breitbart, for fear of local folks.”

An editor at Breitbart, formerly run by senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said that fear is well-founded.

“If any politician in either party veers from what the voters clearly voted for in a landslide election … we stand at the ready to call them out on it and hold them accountable,” the person said.

Bade tells an interesting story about one Republican congressman who made some mild comments about how there might at some point be areas of disagreement between Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill. He was skewered in Breitbart, then Sean Hannity — who has made himself into Trump’s Renfield — took up the criticism, and in short order the congressman was deluged with threats and abuse.

It’s awfully handy that the administration has Breitbart at its disposal, an influential (at least within the right) media outlet that can not only echo the White House line but also target dissenters for retaliation, supported by an army of online enforcers standing ready to take anyone who strays and make his or her life miserable. And any time there’s someone they want to punish, all Steve Bannon has to do is pick up the phone and say, “Hi, it’s your once (and perhaps future) boss. Why don’t you write a story about this?” To paraphrase Grand Moff Tarkin, fear will keep the movement in line. 

The relationship between the White House and the people who helped the president get elected is a tricky issue for all administrations, and one that requires constant management. But the way it usually plays out is that the administration works to maintain its support among its external allies, while those allies pressure the administration to keep on the ideological straight and narrow. With the implicit threat that they might mobilize their armies against the administration (or just withhold their support at key moments), those interest groups and constituencies insist that the administration not compromise when it comes to appointments and policy issues, and give proper weight to the matters that concern them. Most of the time, the administration responds by cultivating them to stay in their good graces, with things like White House meetings to make them feel important and listened to — more carrots than sticks.

But this could be something very different. What we’re seeing so far is a conservative movement that, whatever its prior feelings, is now utterly devoted to the greater glory of Trump. And the message is going out that anyone who objects is going to regret it. This is something conservatives have practice at — after all, the tea party movement spent a great deal of its time punishing those who showed any signs of insufficient devotion to the cause and maintaining unanimity through fear.

That doesn’t mean people on the right won’t be lobbying the administration and trying to push it in particular directions, or that Republicans in Congress won’t sometimes have priorities different from the White House’s. But now, no matter what they thought before, members of the right are coming together around the idea that their goals demand unswerving loyalty to Trump. As Tim Alberta reports in National Review, conservative lawmakers “are understandably reluctant to preemptively criticize an incoming president who’s popular with their constituents back home — and who could jeopardize their political careers and livelihoods with a single retaliatory tweet. Indeed, some normally talkative lawmakers agreed to discuss the upcoming Congress only if they were not quoted.”

So while there may be disagreements behind the scenes, public dissent is going to be met with swift retribution. We know that Trump is hypersensitive to even the mildest criticism and intensely vindictive when it comes to those he feels have crossed him. It looks as though those tendencies are going to be embodied not just in his administration but also in the entire conservative movement.