At Axios, Mike Allen calls it “Trump creep,” the spread of President Trump’s casual, messy approach to politics through government and the Republican Party. A tendency to mislead, a willingness to undercut institutions for short-term benefit, a disinclination to admit fault or error. These tendencies are not ubiquitous within the GOP, but they do seem to be more prevalent now than they were before Trump moved into the White House.
Over the long term, this may not mean much. It is still too early to say how much of an effect Trumpism will have on Washington institutions once he is out of office; things might mostly revert to the way they once were.
They also might not.
One of the central purposes of the Republican Party is to build institutional power. There are other purposes, too, of course. A key reason for the party’s existence is to build something outside of one candidate or one election cycle that can be leveraged over the long term. The benefits of this are obvious: Funding structures and bank accounts, loyalty among voters, distributing resources for candidates who may need them immediately and the ability to plan for the long term.
This is why institutions exist. Political parties, labor unions, even the United States government itself: Build something that exists outside of individuals and can carry power over the long term.
The risk, though, is that, unchecked, individuals can leverage that power to their own ends and damage the institution from the inside. This was part of what diminished the power of the labor movement: a redirection of institutional power to personal ends (and, in some cases, the Mob). The tendency within the Republican Party at this moment to sacrifice the institution for immediate personal gain — like lying about obvious things — is a diminishment of the party’s long-term power.
Trump’s presidential campaign successfully leveraged another aspect of the party’s institutional power: its path to the White House. In theory, anyone can win enough electoral votes to be elected president, but in reality only those who can rely on the institutional power of the Democratic or Republican parties can do so, thanks to established party organizations, funding and legal limitations that restrict access to third parties. Trump had been a Republican for less than a decade, but he understood that a path to the White House ran through the party. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tried to leverage the Democrats’ power to get to the White House despite not being a Democrat; Trump was simply a bit more successful.
What makes Trump unique, though, is he spent his whole life building power for another institution: the Trump Organization (and, by extension, his family). Many people who enter the world of politics do so because they hope to leverage the power of the United States government to effect change in the country: to pass laws they feel are needed or to otherwise direct resources and attention in particular ways.
That is not why Trump ran for president. Sure, he had some loosely articulated campaign goals, like building a wall on the Mexico border and changing trade policies, but he was unabashedly indifferent to detailed policy specifics. He found the power of the government appealing, but Trump never seemed to have much of a sense about how he wanted to direct it.
He seemed, in essence, to see the presidency less as a way to leverage the power of the state than as a way to bolster his own institutional power. The Trump name, long a fixture of buildings in New York City and elsewhere around the world, will now have a permanent home in the history books. The Trumps, at long last, are indisputably important.
As president, he has often made decisions that prioritize his own institutional power over that of the country or his party.
Trump has undermined confidence in the electoral process by claiming without any evidence at all that millions of illegal votes were cast. Why? Because he wants to protect the Trump institution from the fact that Hillary Clinton was the preferred candidate among American voters in 2016.
On Tuesday, officials from American intelligence agencies testified before Congress that Trump had been largely indifferent to the effort to combat Russian meddling in political elections. The cause is likely the same: Trump sees the Russia question as implying he did not rightly win the presidency.
There are numerous other examples: his indifference to questions about his visits to his own properties, his undercutting the FBI and the judiciary, his willingness to constantly mislead the public with his statements.
What Allen calls “Trump creep” is not just about the behaviors Trump exhibits in prioritizing his institution over the institutions of government or party. They are often examples of other people prioritizing Trump’s institution over the ones they mean to serve.
To many, there is a sense that defending the Republican Party means necessarily defending Trump, so leaders in the GOP are willing to stand behind his attacks on, for example, the FBI. Perhaps over the short term, that benefits the party. Over the long-term, though, if the motivation for questioning the FBI is more about defending Trump than about strengthening the agency, those Republicans are undermining the institution of the government for Trump’s personal benefit.
That is an edge case. There are plenty more specific examples of Republicans defending Trump to the detriment of the party and the government. See Bannon, Steve. See pundits on television on any given day.
The government is not an unalloyed good that should be considered immune from criticism, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is Trump the first government official to try to leverage the power of government to his own ends. What is different now is Trump came to the office with a much more apparent conflict in his institutional loyalties, at a partisan moment in which he could leverage intense partisan animosity toward his political opponents to his own defense.
Bringing us back to our question from the outset. Once Trump is out of office (and, presumably, politics), what will the effect of Trump’s presidency be on the institutional power of the Republican Party? You might ask, how does that compare with its effect on the institution to which Trump has been loyal much longer, the Trump family?