Getting out of the insanity of Washington does wonders for one’s perspective on what the heck is happening there. You “slip the surly bonds” of petty tweets and gross insensitivities of a septuagenarian who should know better to focus on the important things. It also helps if you’re participating in a conference where people far more experienced and learned than you offer their insights. Such was the case for me at last week’s 10th annual Inside American Politics conference in Florence organized by Ellyn Toscano, executive director of New York University Florence.
On a panel I moderated on the relationship between President Trump and Congress, Republican strategist Todd Harris, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, offered a handy guide for understanding the motivations — or ideologies, as Harris put them — for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Trump. Under the old norms, Harris argued, when a party controls the White House, Senate and House, you could expect a shared ideology that would guide the leaders to row in the same direction to get something done. Not now.
Think about the ideologies of the three Republicans in charge of Washington. You have Paul Ryan, whose ideology actually is ideology. He loves policy. He is a wonk and he would love nothing more than to sit around and discuss really arcane policy details and make them law. Mitch McConnell’s ideology is power. This is someone who first ran, when he first ran for Senate in Kentucky he ran as a moderate. He is someone who has been very, very adept at consolidating power in Washington and his main ideology, and I don’t say this in any way to be ugly because in Washington having power is an ideology and he is pretty good at positioning himself, but that’s his motivator.
Trump’s ideology is popularity. There is nothing more important for the president. It’s not policy. It’s not, it’s certainly nothing in Republican dogma that motivates him. What motivates him is his popularity. He wants to be loved. And you could say, ‘Well, how is that possible? His approval ratings are not nearly where you would think that they should be for someone who is motivated by popularity. But I don’t believe that the president views public opinion the way that previous presidents have viewed it, which is something to be, something you use the bully pulpit to shape and to meld and to try to build some kind of national consensus. I think Trump views public opinion as a commodity. It’s something you own, your piece of it that you tend to. You own a slice of it and you need to, it’s like you own your building. You need to make sure your building is well-maintained and you don’t care about the building across the street.
So, you have this dynamic now where the motivating driver of the three most powerful men in Washington — they’re all different, which is why using any sort of historic norm to try to understand what’s going on today it would be sort of like trying to tour the Duomo with the guide book from the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. You’re walking around looking for the Chuck Berry exhibit and not understanding at all what it is you’re looking at because it is a completely separate reality that you are existing in. And, by the way, both of them are real. The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a real place. That guide book is a real book. The Duomo is a real cathedral. But they all exist in totally separate universes and we happen to have a party right now that is trying to layer these universes on top of each other and it makes for a very, very challenging time to be a Republican candidate.
Knowing this says a lot about the nonsense gripping Washington before I left town, while I was out of town and when I came home. Harris’s observation explains why Trump gleefully (and disturbingly) flame-throws McConnell and Sen. Bob Corker. The president’s base hates the Washington establishment and loves to see the folks who represent it get their butts handed to them. In addition, that base is not too fond of folks not like them. Hence, their cheers when Trump punches down by picking fights with African American women, like Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), and black athletes, ostensibly over patriotism.
Harris’s viewpoint also sheds light on why McConnell appears to roll with whatever Trump wants, no matter how humiliating the process. “What I have an obligation to do is to achieve the greatest cohesion I can among the 52 Republicans to try to achieve for the American people the agenda we set out to achieve,” McConnell said Tuesday on Capitol Hill after a Republican caucus lunch with the president.
And Harris’s words give greater context to why Ryan reflexively pivots to policy when asked about Trump’s Twitter tantrums against fellow Republicans. “At the end of the day, I know Bob [Corker] well,” the House speaker told reporters Tuesday. “Bob is going to vote for Tennessee, he’s going to vote for America, he’s going to vote for tax reform because he knows it’s [in the] best interest of Americans, so put this Twitter dispute aside.” A moment later, Ryan added, “So all this stuff you see on a daily basis on Twitter this and Twitter that, forget about it.”
Because of the separate universes with their separate realities that Harris talked about, agreed-upon truth and caring about being on the right side of truth don’t matter anymore. Even though Harris believes that we, as a nation, must have a shared viewed of the facts, he confessed how our current “alternative facts” world and attacks on the press by the president of the United States have impacted his work with Republican candidates.
As a political consultant, I used to sweat bullets about when TV ads that we wrote were being fact-checked. And whether it was PolitiFact. I remember arguing, going back-and-forth with PolitiFact editor, doing everything we possibly could to keep from getting a “pants on fire” or “mostly untrue” rating. Or at The [Washington] Post to do everything we possibly could to keep from getting a bunch of Pinocchios because if, I used to believe, because it used to matter that if you were, if what you said was being labeled as “untrue” that would have a detrimental impact on you vis-a-vis voters. Today? I could care less. We could put an ad up and PolitiFact could say “pants on fire,” “totally false.” We could get seven trillion Pinocchios from The Post and, you know what? It’s not going to matter because the level of distrust that exists right now with what everybody is saying in the media is such that a campaign could simply say, “Yep, well, I stand by my ad. I stand by my statement and who are you going to believe, me or them?” And we’re so siloed now that the fact checkers, which used to have a real impact, it doesn’t anymore. I’m not proud of the fact that I don’t care about it anymore. I use that as an example to show this is the impact that waging a war against the media is having.
Despite that pessimistic view of our political reality, I have been heartened by Republicans willing to push back against the ugly cynicism fueling those ideologies Harris talked about. Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) threw down the gauntlet by declaring “enough” on the Senate floor on Tuesday. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) stood up for American ideals and global leadership as he received the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia last week. Former president George W. Bush did the same in a speech a couple of days later. Corker has been standing tall for months now.
We can debate the motivations of the senators finding their voices now as opposed to any number of gasp-worthy opportunities presented by the president. But they don’t matter, not to me, at least. When the danger of Trump is clear and present, every voice that is raised counts. When will others “slip the surly bonds” of complicity or silence?
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