Republicans Have Become the Except-When-Trump-Does-It Party
Before heading off for a break at his Trump-branded golf course in Ireland, President Trump this week attacked the mayor of London as a “stone cold loser,” called an American-born British princess “nasty” and then denied he said it, bragged about nonexistent large crowds of admirers greeting him and blamed the “totally Corrupt Media” when he was called on it, labelled the actress Bette Midler a “washed up psycho,” and pushed a trade war with Mexico opposed by both political parties in the U.S. All this, of course, was in between a lavish state visit with the British Royal Family and somber commemoration ceremonies, on both sides of the English Channel, to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of D Day.
At any other moment in American history, this exhausting drama would have seemed unthinkable, nutty, and deeply mortifying for a country that still counts itself a global superpower. In the future, it may very well seem so again. But, for now, this is what counts as a good week in the Trump Presidency. Trump himself certainly appeared to think so, and no wonder: the celebrity-obsessed leader was visibly delighted at his grand Buckingham Palace reception from the Queen and seemed appropriately awed by the sacrifices of the American soldiers who hit the beaches, two years before he was born, to begin the liberation of Europe. In his speech Thursday, at what he called “freedom’s altar,” in Normandy, Trump offered well-received platitudes about the fighters who “ran through the fires of hell” to storm the French coast. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called it “the strongest speech of his Presidency.” CNN’s Jim Acosta called it “the most on-message moment of Donald Trump’s Presidency.” “Hell freezes over,” the pro-Trump Fox News said in a story recounting their praise.
Hell, however, has not actually frozen over. Trump has neither suddenly turned into a statesman nor embraced the lost political art of message discipline. He is the same petty name-caller and truth-denying conspiracy theorist. Minutes before Trump delivered his solemn speech, with the crowd of nonagenarian veterans already in their seats, he taped an interview with the Fox host Laura Ingraham on the hallowed ground of the American cemetery. With rows of white headstones of the D Day fallen visible in the background, the President called the special counsel Robert Mueller a “fool,” and the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a “disaster.” He was typically garbled and incoherent (claiming, for example, that Mueller had to “straighten out his testimony because his testimony was wrong,” though Mueller, in fact, has never given any testimony, never mind taken it back). He was blustery. He was defiant. “Nervous Nancy” Pelosi can “do what she wants,” Trump said, when asked about Mueller testifying before Congress. “You know what? I think they’re in big trouble.” In short, he was Trump.
When the excerpts from his interview with Ingraham were released later on Thursday, the inflammatory quotes from the President underscored how unusual the Normandy speech was. Trump had seemed oddly un-Trump-like as he praised D Day veterans and recounted stories of their heroism. It just didn’t sound like him, and the reason is that he so rarely praises others or even speaks much about anyone other than himself. The speech had none of his usual braggadocio. It was perhaps the only major Trump address since he has entered public life without a single use of the President’s favorite word: “I,” to refer to himself.
Trump’s ability to dominate is one of his signature attributes as a politician. He dominates news headlines. He creates controversies and manufactures fights—anything to stay in the center of attention. Nowhere has he dominated more thoroughly and perhaps more surprisingly than with the Republican elected officials on Capitol Hill, who largely opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and have been trying to make it up to him ever since.
Even while he was in Europe this week, gushing about the “fantastic” royal family and the “tremendous crowds of well-wishers,” Trump was pushing his fellow-Republicans to agree to a course that virtually none of them supports as a matter of policy or principle. Trump is threatening to impose a series of punitive tariffs on Mexico unless it does the impossible and somehow halts the escalating flow of drugs and migrants across the border. Trump announced his tariff threat in a tweet a few days before heading to Europe, leaving Vice-President Mike Pence and various advisers behind in Washington to deal with the fallout. High-level Mexican officials rushed to the U.S. capital to try to negotiate a way out before Trump’s self-imposed Monday deadline, while a larger-than-usual group of Republican senators tried, sounding almost desperate at times, to signal their opposition to the tariffs without enraging the President. Words like “revolt” and “rebellion” were thrown around in the coverage.
But Trump, thousands of miles away, didn’t mind. In fact, he seemed delighted by the fuss his tariff plan had kicked up. “Tariffs are a beautiful thing,” he told Ingraham in that same Fox News interview, at the American cemetery in Normandy. “It’s a beautiful word if you know how to use them properly.” And no, he said, he wasn’t really worried about his party either. “Republicans should love what I’m doing,” he told her, while admitting that even he wasn’t sure where this is all going to lead.
There are plenty of reasons that Trump need not be overly concerned about a rebellion by his fellow Party members, even as the Mexican negotiators appear to have proposed a deal for sending six thousand troops to their own border, and other new measures that may or may not assuage the President in advance of the Monday deadline. Congress has the power to stop the move with legislation, and, on paper, there ought to be a veto-proof number of votes in both houses to do so. But skeptics—and there are plenty of them—are not at all convinced that the Trump-manufactured Mexico fight will result in the “apocalyptic shoot-out-at-high-noon sort of confrontation,” as the Republican strategist Michael Steel called it, between the President and Hill Republicans. “There are too many off ramps and too little upside,” Steel pointed out to me, which means that, even if no one, including Trump, knows exactly what will happen, some sort of compromise that buys time is likely.
For Trump, the outcome could be the sort of easy political win that he’s become accustomed to on a variety of fronts, whether it’s pushing European nations to contribute more to NATO’s defense or bargaining with Congress. The play is familiar because he’s run it so many times: make threats, secure concessions (whether real or not), declare victory, and do it all over again. At the least, he’ll have distracted from the growing debate over the Mueller report and whether he should be impeached for having obstructed justice. He’ll have changed the conversation back to his two favorite subjects: trade and immigration (even better, he’ll have merged his two favorite subjects into one). And, very likely, he’ll have proven, once again, that, when it comes to a conflict between their principles and their President, Republicans on Capitol Hill will almost always choose their President.
In that regard, I found interviews in the Miami Herald with Florida’s two senators, both Republicans and both ostensibly staunch proponents of free trade, particularly instructive about the political domination Trump has, for now, over his party. “Everything has been tried, every carrot available has been tried,” Marco Rubio, the senator who ran against Trump in 2016 as a fervent free-trader, and who first became nationally famous for trying to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform during the Obama Administration, told the Herald. “I’m not a tariff fan in terms of a normal course of policy but I know of no other method to get [Mexico’s] attention.” Florida’s other senator, the newly elected former governor Rick Scott, offered a similar rationale. “I don’t like tariffs but I’m going to support the president because I believe Mexico could be a better partner,” Scott told the newspaper. “They need to figure out how to reduce the number of people who are being apprehended at the border.”
In other words, they are against tariffs—except when Trump imposes them. Which strikes me as a perfect rationale for this political moment. They are also presumably against stonewalling investigators, refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas, shutting down the government, running up the national debt, labelling close American allies national-security threats, and praising dictators—except when Trump does it. So far, this has been the story of the Republican Senate in the Trump era and, indeed, of the national G.O.P. At a time when no one is really sure anymore just what constitutes Republican ideology, you could do worse than to call it the Except-When-Trump-Does-It Party.
For Republicans, Trump now trumps all. Even D Day, said the Party’s national chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, should be an occasion to praise and acclaim the President. Appearing on Fox Business, McDaniel said Wednesday that the commemorations in Europe were a “time where we should be celebrating our President” and avoiding all the usual “negativity.” McDaniel is such a Trump loyalist that she even recently stopped using her maiden name, “Romney,” because it might remind Trump of her uncle, the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who had been one of Trump’s fiercest critics. As for Romney, he is now a newly elected senator from Utah with a restrained view of what constitutes Presidential criticism. Asked about the Mexico tariffs this week, he told reporters that he would prefer that Trump not impose them on a “friend.” The previously outspoken opponent of tariffs didn’t, however, even commit to voting against them. If this is the rebellion, no wonder Trump seems so confident.