The President cows his critics, but he should be careful how much loyalty he demands.
Inside the Republican party, President Trump is riding high and his critics seem to be running scared. He enjoys sky-high approval ratings from voters who identify with the GOP, and his Republican critics are paying a price for crossing him.
On Tuesday, the day that voters went to the polls in South Carolina, Trump slammed GOP representative Mark Sanford and urged Republicans to vote for his rival in the congressional race in the state’s first district:
Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!
— TheRealDonaldTrump (@RealDonad_Trump) June 12, 2018
The tweet almost certainly played a role in Sanford’s defeat. Next month, Representative Martha Roby of Alabama faces a run-off at least in part because she criticized Trump two years ago during the 2016 campaign. Trump’s ire at Arizona senator Jeff Flake probably played a role in Flake’s plummeting poll numbers and his decision last year to retire after one term.
Sanford ruefully told NBC’s Meet the Press that while he supported the president’s legislative agenda about 90 percent of the time, it wasn’t enough for some primary voters who demanded personal loyalty to Trump. His defeat will make it harder for his congressional colleagues to call Trump out, he said, whether it’s on trade or on his twist-and-turn foreign policy. “From an electoral sense, people are running for cover because they don’t want to be on the losing side of a presidential tweet,” Sanford told host Chuck Todd. “And from a popular standpoint, it’s almost a Faustian bargain: I’ll pander to you if you pander to me.”
That mutual dependency has smoothed over a lot of rough spots in President Trump’s relationship with GOP lawmakers. But on Tuesday, Trump will meet with House Republicans in an effort to push for his immigration policy. Some worry that Trump will threaten to undermine those who oppose him.
That’s unlikely for two reasons. First, most of the primaries are over for this year and few GOP members are facing serious challengers. Should Trump press the remaining primary candidates too hard, he would, in effect, be undermining their reelection bids against Democrats in the fall. “For all his frustration, the last thing Donald Trump wants is for the House to be run by Democrats who want to impeach him and issue subpoenas to his appointees,” GOP strategist Alex Castellanos told me.
Second, Trump has been warned by close advisers that previous presidents have had poor results when they took their intra-party ire too far. Richard Nixon was able to purge a couple of dissident congressional Republicans, but that left him with less support among the remaining members during the Watergate crisis.
But the real cautionary tale comes from Franklin Roosevelt in the 1938 midterm elections. FDR gambled that his landslide reelection in 1936 gave him carte blanche to put forward his “court-packing” plan, which would have expanded the Supreme Court from nine to as many as 15 Justices — and put an end to the Court’s resistance to any New Deal laws FDR supported.
Many conservative Southern Democrats sided with Republicans in blocking Roosevelt’s court-packing plan — they accused him of seeking one-man rule. Roosevelt was furious. He promised to launch a personal crusade to defeat his worst critics in primary campaigns. “They have no idea what’s going to happen,” the president told his political consultant James Farley. “They’ll be sorry yet.”
Roosevelt proceeded to launch a campaign that many newspapers labeled “the Roosevelt Purge.” In the summer of 1938, he used a train to barnstorm through Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and other states. At each stop, FDR would call his conservative adversaries disloyal and promote the cause of their liberal challengers.
Almost without exception, Roosevelt failed, and he paid a steep price for his political pique. Many Democrats resented his interference and quietly worked to undermine his other initiatives while not going public. The internal division Roosevelt fomented weakened his party, which wound up losing 81 House seats and eight Senate seats in the 1938 elections. “Never again would Roosevelt be able to rally his base and pass major New Deal legislation,” historian Jim Powell told me. “His legacy after that was almost completely in foreign policy.”
President Trump has changed some of the rules of politics, but that doesn’t mean we should throw fundamental tenets of conservatism out the window.
But while Trump is unlikely to initiate more than pinpoint strikes against critics in his party, Republicans in Congress still have reason to worry. Sanford said on Meet the Press that the Republican party and the conservative movement in general have become less about principles and more about loyalty to Trump. “I think we’ve got to do a whole lot of soul-searching in this party,” he said.
President Trump has changed some of the rules of politics, but that doesn’t mean we should throw fundamental tenets of conservatism out the window. Yes, the Republican party needs to become more sensitive to how skewed, multilateral trade treaties have bruised American workers. But Kevin McCarthy, the GOP House majority leader, is turning the world upside down when he effectively calls Trump a genius for using national-security concerns to impose steel tariffs on Canada.
Republican leaders are certainly acting as if they are now part of the party of Trump. And in the tribal, #Resistance-soaked environment that the Left has created, a “your team or my team” mentality is understandable. But if they can summon some courage, Republicans in Congress still have a higher responsibility than demonstrating loyalty to Trump: It’s to their constitutional oath, it’s to reality-based argument, and it’s to conservative principles. Whatever Trump may say or do, conservatives must refuse the temptation to declare, “I support my leader, right or left.”