The GOP’s Dilemma: Avoiding Disaster in Midterms Will Just Embolden Trump to Run Again

As Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell undoubtedly know, the Republican Party is a prisoner of Donald Trump’s dangerous eccentricities. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The most troubling thing to come out of the disclosures in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, is this confirmation of his portrait of the president and his advisers from the consummate political insiders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei of Axios, who surely have dozens if not hundreds of sources in the administration and the top echelons of Congress.

[T]here are two things he gets absolutely right, even in the eyes of White House officials who think some of the book’s scenes are fiction: his spot-on portrait of Trump as an emotionally erratic president, and the low opinion of him among some of those serving him.

More specifically, Allen and VandeHei agree from all the impressions they have gathered that Trump is “postliterate,” gathering most of his limited information from TV; prone to “random, uninformed, and seemingly capricious” reactions to international developments; deeply hostile to “experts” and reliant on his gut instincts; and subject to “dark hours” in which he is paralyzed by irrational rage and cannot be approached by anyone. Just as disturbingly, Allen, VandeHei, and Wolff all agree Trump’s circle of associates is heavily populated by people who see and fear his shortcomings but understand the only way to maintain his trust is to agree with him extravagantly.

Allen and VandeHei conclude:

More than half a dozen of the more skilled White House staff are contemplating imminent departures. Many leaving are quite fearful about the next chapter of the Trump presidency.

All in all, the more we learn, the more it seems that the White House is gripped in a genuine “emperor has no clothes” atmosphere, in which the escalating craziness is the one thing no one can openly acknowledge. Hence the strange phenomenon of the little pep rallies that Executive branch and congressional GOP officials insist on holding to buck up Trump’s moods when he’s in danger of entering one of those “dark hours,” with Vice-President Pence invariably serving as Sycophant-in-Chief.

If this impression is true, or even half-true, it creates a terrible political dilemma for Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. They’ve struggled to wring some accomplishments from Trump’s first year in office, but need more time to add to the ranks of conservative judges, dismantle more regulations, and in general, undermine as much of the New Deal/Great Society legacy as possible. But they are in dire danger of losing their grip on power in the 2018 midterms. A Democratic House would entirely eliminate their power to enact legislation on a party-line basis as they did with the tax bill (and nearly did with health-care legislation), while turning the investigatory committees of that chamber over to a hostile party that’s not going to participate in Trump’s malicious fantasy pursuit of Crooked Hillary or James Comey. And a Democratic Senate could pretty much ruin everything.

On the other hand, if congressional Republicans somehow stanch the bleeding and hang onto both congressional chambers (with, almost certainly, a loss of House seats and, at best, a narrow Senate margin), then they fall onto the other horn of the dilemma: Everything we know about Donald Trump tells us that he will see this relative success as a vindication of his own political brilliance and a clear mandate to run for a second term.

If GOP insiders are indeed engaged in a tense, teeth-grinding, self-repressive effort to keep Donald Trump from careening out of control at the price of never, ever telling him or others (on the record, at least) about his actual limitations, then that’s an act that can only be maintained for a certain period of time. Do they want to risk seven more years of this dance on the precipice? Or alternatively, a political disaster in 2020 that could give Democrats even more power than Republicans obtained in November 2016? These have to be concerns that occur to smart Republicans all the time.

But they are caught in a trap of their own making. It is telling that the one figure best positioned to lead a GOP transition away from Trump is Pence, whose obsequious behavior toward the boss would make it exceedingly awkward for him to suddenly play a role in easing the mogul off the stage into retirement.

However it all turns out, it’s a safe bet that in the future, the informal rule-makers of American politics do everything they can to reinforce resistance to true “outsiders” running for president. Whatever you think of career politicians, they are almost always known quantities; there is no way they’d get close to Iowa or New Hampshire having displayed the kind of personality traits exhibited by the 45th president. For the time being, though, we’ll all — including the president’s most intimate White House associates — have to continue waking up each morning wondering: What has he tweeted already today?

GOP Dilemma: Avoid Loss in ’18, Get Stuck With Trump in ’20