Over the weekend, Steve Bannon implored attendees of the Values Voter Summit to wage “war against the GOP Establishment.” The former White House official then warned Mitch McConnell that conservative donors were searching for a “Brutus to your Julius Caesar.”
On Monday morning, Donald Trump suggested that he understood why Bannon might fantasize about Senate Republicans (figuratively) stabbing Mitch McConnell to death. “I can understand where Steve Bannon is coming from,” the president said, explaining that he shared his former adviser’s frustrations about how Congress was “not getting the job done.”
Within hours, Trump was standing beside McConnell at a hastily arranged Rose Garden press conference, insisting that the Majority Leader was the best, most loyal, do-nothing Julius Caesar he’d ever met.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Trump said of the unsmiling Kentucky senator. “And the relationship is very good. We’re fighting for the same thing.”
The commentariat has been puzzling over which side Trump is on — the nationalist right’s or the GOP Establishment’s — ever since the 2016 election turned the xenophobic demagogue into a D.C. insider. The president has spent much of the past year zigzagging between periods of pseudo-conventional plutocratic Republicanism and fits of anti-globalist rebellion. The rapidity of these flip-flops in recent days — combined with Bannon’s nascent, Mercer-funded war on Republican incumbents — has made the question of Trump’s true allegiance particularly acute.
And yet, the president’s inconstancy also makes that question look fundamentally misguided. The weight of the evidence suggests that Trump doesn’t want to pick a dog in Bannon’s looming fight for the soul of the GOP. He doesn’t want to buck his Breitbart base — or claim full responsibility for the consequences of its most reactionary wishes. He just wants to win. And, as the recent Senate primary in Alabama taught him, it’s easier to declare victory when you don’t pick a side.
Fortunately for Bannon, this very ambivalence has led Trump to put congressional Republicans right where Breitbart wants them. In an attempt to have his alt-right bait and Establishment approval too, the president has repeatedly taken radical executive actions to excite his base, and then called on Congress to do damage control. Which is to say: By refusing to take a side in his party’s bitterest debates, he has elevated those fights to the top of Paul Ryan’s agenda.
The great perk of being the majority party is that you get to determine which issues Congress has to vote on. This not only allows the party to pursue its policy goals, but also to troll the other side by forcing their members to vote on issues that divide their coalition, and/or isolate their base from the broader public.
But Trump has taken that prerogative out of his party’s hands. Over the past past month and a half, the president has canceled DACA; implored Congressional Republicans to provide permanent legal status to the program’s recipients within six months; suggested that if they didn’t, he might reinstate administrative protections for those 800,000 “Dreamers” unilaterally; reached a tentative agreement with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a bill that would trade such protections for border-security funding; and, after ostensibly deciding he’d gone too globalist, announced that he actually opposed giving legal status to Dreamers, unless such an amnesty were paired with drastic reductions to legal immigration and funding for his border wall.
Few policy questions isolate the “deplorables” from the general public better than amnesty for gainfully employed, culturally American, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. In some polls, a majority of Trump voters oppose deporting said Dreamers. Meanwhile, few issues divide the Republican coalition against itself — the business wing against the nationalist grassroots — more sharply than legal immigration or the border wall.
Which is to say: Trump has forced congressional Republicans to choose between letting 800,000 fully assimilated immigrants suddenly lose their legal status — a development without precedent in our nation’s history — or else ignoring his hard-line requests and letting the party’s moderates vote for Nancy Pelosi’s amnesty bill.
And the president performed a similar trick by canceling Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions, and refusing to certify the Iran deal. By declining to quietly continue the health-care law’s subsidies to providers, Trump has forced congressional Republicans to either sit on their hands — and preside over a large spike in premiums on the individual market — or face their voters in 2018, having passed no health-care legislation except for what the party has long derided as Obamacare’s “bailout for insurers.”
As for the Iran nuclear agreement, Senate Republicans now need to find 60 votes for adding Trump’s requested poison pills to the deal. That is to say, they’ll need to find a bunch of Democrats willing to vote for legislation that will blow up Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement, while undermining America’s diplomatic credibility — or else, once again, fail to make good on their promises to the GOP base.
On top of all this, the president appears poised to give Mexico and Canada six-months’ notice of his intention to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA. In that interim, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would go to thermonuclear war with the Trumpen proletariat, while Establishment Republicans would put supply chains before party, and struggle to usurp the president’s authority over trade.
Thanks to the president’s debt-ceiling deal with Chuck and Nancy, many of these issues are likely to come to a head in December, when Paul Ryan will need Democratic votes to keep the government running. Thus, given the stubbornly inchoate state of the GOP’s tax-reform bill, there’s a decent chance that congressional Republicans will face primary challengers early next year with no legislative accomplishments to tout — save for bills stabilizing Obamacare, raising the debt ceiling, and giving amnesty to “illegal aliens.”
Trump could have done the far right’s bidding without putting his party in this position. The president could have terminated the Iran deal himself, and vowed to veto any legislation that gave legal status to Dreamers, or appropriated Obamacare’s cost-sharing reductions. Instead, he has called on Congress to find a middle ground (between conservatives and radical reactionaries) on all these issues.
It isn’t the president’s extremism that’s sabotaging GOP incumbents, so much as his cowardly evasion of responsibility. Of all Trump’s statements on the Bannon–McConnell feud Monday, none better expresses his true ethos than, “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest.”
All this said, it’s more than possible that Bannon’s bombast will prove louder than his bite. Roy Moore had plenty of advantages over Luther Strange before Breitbart ever entered his corner. McConnell still has a formidable war chest. The “swamp” may well win next year’s primaries in a rout.
But if Mercer-funded wing nuts do take out Republican incumbents next year, they’ll have Trump to thank — no matter which side his fickle heart has him on by then.