Republicans who dared to cut deals with Democrats have long had to fear retribution from conservative activists like Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. He had railed against a 2015 debt-ceiling compromise as “absurd,” and as recently as March called for President Trump to use the vote to “create real reforms” to cut spending.
But when Trump shocked the nation last week, handing Democrats a major victory by accepting their terms for a clean three-month suspension of the borrowing limit, Manning says he felt no ill will for the president. Instead, he blamed House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for forcing Trump to work with Democrats.
“He gave them the opportunity to legislate and they failed, so of course he’s got to knock over the table,” Manning said. “He said now you have to compete for my signature and in competing you have got to give me what I want. So, yeah, he changed the game.”
The game has certainly changed. The old rules of GOP politics held that any Republican who stepped out of line to seek compromise with Democrats risked immediate attack for ideological heresy, or worse, squishiness and weakness. But Trump’s call for a “much stronger coming together” with Democrats last week earned him little direct public criticism from Republican lawmakers or activists, who are wary of his power among the base. Instead, party leaders across Washington turned the focus of their ire on the continued dysfunction among Republicans.
That line was echoed from the White House, which has sought to cast Trump’s embrace of Democrats as an effort to disrupt politics as usual. “This is simple. In the real world, progress is measured by how much you produce, not how much you pontificate,” said Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser. “It turns out the swamp includes some people on Capitol Hill and not just on K Street.”
At the core of Trump’s decision is a calculation that many Republicans, with more traditional ideological goals, ignore at their own peril. The president has never seen himself as a party standard-bearer, but as the leader for a growing share of the electorate furious at the haplessness of the political system. While his prescriptions have tended to be conservative, his disruptive methods are more often the primary selling point, along with his promise to deliver for what he calls “the forgotten men and women.”
“His nomination was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” said Roger Stone, a former longtime political adviser who helped guide Trump’s short-lived bid for the 2000 Reform Party nomination. “He is a threat to them. He has just demonstrated that he is entirely capable of outflanking and outmaneuvering them.”
Trump has tied his fortunes to a growth in the share of voters more focused on shaking up the system than in prescribing specific ideas for its replacement. The 2009 tea party rebellion in the Republican Party, which began as a demand for less government spending, seamlessly morphed into broad support for Trump’s 2016 campaign, despite his promises to resist cuts to government entitlement programs and his disinterest in lowering federal deficits.
“There is an element of the core base in both the Democratic and Republican Party that is more nonideological and anti-establishment than any other aspect of their political view,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to McConnell who helped lead the Republican effort to defeat tea party challengers in the 2014 elections. “Taken to its logical conclusion, that means that they will support anybody regardless of their ideology that is intent on opposing the powers that be.”
The trend could have significant implications not only for the coming legislative negotiations but for the midterm elections next year. Republican lawmakers are bracing for the possibility that Trump will involve himself in primary elections to challenge incumbent Republican senators in Arizona and Nevada.
A special primary election this month in Alabama has demonstrated the popular appeal among voters for candidates who will go to Washington to smash the existing ways. Former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who is running an iconoclastic campaign against the “silk stocking Washington elitists,” has been leading incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in most recent polls, about two weeks before the runoff. Though Trump has officially endorsed Strange, he has yet to commit to campaigning in Alabama. Meanwhile, Trump’s recent tweets criticizing McConnell — “Get back to work,” the president demanded — have helped carry Moore’s anti-incumbent message.
Trump’s 2016 campaign pollster, John McLaughlin, who continues to consult with the White House, conducted an online poll for conservative groups late last month that found 68 percent of likely Republican voters in 2018 thought it was time to replace McConnell and Ryan in Congress. In a separate question, 49 percent of all likely voters polled, including 46 percent of Republicans, said the same Republican leadership was “supporting the swamp” that Trump had promised to drain.
“Among these likely voters, they are more supportive of the president because he is trying to get things done,” McLaughlin said. “They are definitely sending a warning message to the Republican majority that they want to get things done.”
Trump’s support with the Republican Party has fallen somewhat since his inauguration, but remains about 70 percent in most surveys. Among people who backed Trump in the primary, the support is even stronger. That stands in marked contrast to Trump’s overall approval rating among American adults, which hovers around 40 percent, according to polling averages. A poll by Fox News at the end of last month found that 56 percent of voters thought Trump was “tearing the country apart,” while the same percentage said he did not respect racial minorities. In the same survey, more than half of voters answered “not at all” when asked if Trump was honest, compassionate or a moral leader.
But for Trump, his base support has always mattered more. And it has continued to complicate the efforts of the self-styled intellectuals of the conservative movement who want to continue to frame political fights along an ideological axis. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of several Republicans who rushed to the microphones after Trump cut a deal with Democrats to try to reclaim his language. “What we’re doing in this body today is not draining the swamp,” he announced on the Senate floor, before the vote on Trump’s deal with Democrats. “What we’re doing is running a whole bunch of hoses to the edge of the swamp, turning them on to the highest possible volume flow, and then turning our backs.”
It was a statement that would make sense for voters who define “the swamp” as a government with more progressive priorities. But the president believes his adopted party has moved on to different goals. “The people of the United States want to see a coming together, at least to an extent, with different parties,” Trump said Thursday at the White House. His bet is that as long as he can demonstrate disruption of the established order, the Republican electorate will be willing to come along for the ride.