Two years ago, the West Wing’s rooms were full of “adults” who proudly subordinated Trump’s impetuous requests to the rule of law, professional ethics, or official procedures. Meanwhile, prominent congressional Republicans were likening their president to a child or madman. But now, the “toddler” is running the “day-care center.” The attorney general comports himself as Trump’s private detective. The Pentagon has made peace with the president’s love of war crimes. As for Capitol Hill: The New York Times reports that Trump has become “more feared by his party’s lawmakers than any occupant of the Oval Office since at least Lyndon Johnson,” and his “iron grip” has never been firmer than it is today. Thus, despite overwhelming evidence that the president unlawfully withheld congressionally appointed military aid — so as to coerce a foreign government into investigating his domestic rivals — not a single House Republican voted to impeach Trump last week, or even to open an investigation into his alleged misconduct back in September.
Still, there are some limits to the president’s power over his co-partisans. Trump’s iron fist may be strong enough to break Republican resistance to his assaults on the foundations of liberal democracy, but it’s not quite mighty enough to make Republican senators vote for popular bipartisan legislation that would increase Trump’s chances of reelection. Mitch McConnell’s caucus is happy to put the president’s wishes above the dictates of the Constitution or Geneva Convention. But the dictates of the pharmaceutical lobby are another story:
After months of wrangling, House Democrats finally passed a massive bill aimed at lowering drug prices. And Senate Republicans are flummoxed over how to respond.
The GOP is in a jam that makes action appear somewhere between unlikely and impossible. But if Republicans fail to act, it could easily become a major political liability for the party given the salience of high drug prices in public polling and President Donald Trump’s desire for sweeping reforms.
Yet with an election year cresting and massive divisions among his members, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is staying put. Associates say the Kentucky Republican is not eager to make a move that splits his caucus and could incur the wrath of the well-financed pharmaceutical industry …
“God, I don’t know. We’re stuck with a price-control concept,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, referring to his opposition to [Iowa Republican Chuck] Grassley’s bill. Trump “is nonconventional as a Republican. He would go to price controls … [McConnell] probably wants what I want.”
At first blush, this makes the reports of Trump’s “complete takeover” appear greatly exaggerated. Imposing price controls on prescription drugs is a wildly popular idea, which would deliver the lion’s share of its benefits to a core Republican constituency. The president campaigned on such price controls in 2016, and described them as his “next major priority” in his 2019 State of the Union address. There is a bipartisan bill before Congress that would allow Trump to make good on that promise.
Yet McConnell is “staying put.” His caucus’s principled conservatives believe that when the state intervenes in the pharmaceutical market to raise prices and juice profits (by awarding patent monopolies that restrict competition), that is free-market economics — but when “big government” intervenes to aid consumers at the expense of Merck’s shareholders, it’s socialist tyranny. And, at the end of the day, the GOP’s long-standing principles (a.k.a. the GOP donor class’s long-standing demands) ostensibly count for more than one president’s whims.
What, then, do we mean when we say that Trump has “taken over” the GOP? If a president cannot convince his congressional allies to buck their party’s established orthodoxy on his “next major priority” — even when his position is popular, and the orthodoxy is not — in what sense has he attained the “complete fealty” of his party’s lawmakers? The discrepancy of Trump’s supposedly historic power over his party — and his demonstrable inability to rally congressional Republicans behind his legislative goals — reflects a fact that’s too often elided in discussions of Trump’s “hostile takeover of the GOP”: The mogul’s conquest of the American right owed as much to strategic surrenders as it did to tweeted blitzkriegs.
Trump began accommodating the GOP Establishment from the moment he secured the nomination. In the early weeks of his primary campaign, Trump endorsed universal health-care, tax hikes on hedge-fund managers, and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. After Trump won the Republican primary — and, thus, the hearts and minds of many previously adversarial GOP donors — he either abandoned or de-emphasized such heresies. Once in power, he outsourced his agenda to Paul Ryan. Trump could have devoted his “honeymoon” to his (broadly popular) ambitions for improving U.S. infrastructure. Instead, he let the Randian speaker try and fail to take health-care from poor people, before successfully delivering (deeply unpopular) tax cuts to wealthy ones.
Notably, subordinating his own political interests to the GOP Establishment’s fiscal agenda did not earn Trump any “fealty” on his campaign’s defining issue: When the White House’s official immigration plan (which included full funding for a border wall, and cuts to legal admissions) came before the Senate in February 2018, 14 Republicans voted against it. (Mitch McConnell held votes on three other immigration bills that same day; all won more support than Donald Trump’s.)
To be sure, the president has occasionally flouted his party’s orthodoxy on trade and foreign policy. But even in those realms, Trump’s heresies are often overstated. Every modern Republican president has dabbled in protectionism at the behest of his favorite industries. And Trump did not ultimately tear up NAFTA, but merely negotiated a nearly-identical replacement. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal affections for Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, his administration has pursued the hawkish anti-Russian foreign policy that Mitt Romney once demanded. The president’s betrayal of Syria’s Kurds may have ruffled some neoconservative feathers. But then, betraying the Kurds has long been a pastime of Republican presidents – and for all of Trump’s vows to withdraw U.S. troops from the region, “large-scale operations” in Syria are ongoing.
Put simply, it isn’t that hard to complete a “hostile takeover” of a party when your hostility does not extend to anything that that party truly values. The GOP Establishment did not wage holy war on Trump in early 2016 because it found his incivility or xenophobia unconscionable; it did so because it doubted Trump’s ability to defeat Hillary Clinton, and his willingness to implement the conservative agenda. By delivering the White House to Republicans, the regulatory state to the Chamber of Commerce, the tax code to plutocrats, and the judiciary to the Federalist Society, Trump has dispelled those fears.
The mainstream press exaggerates Trump’s power over congressional Republicans because it refuses to recognize the gulf between the GOP’s stated values and its actual ones. The modern Republican Party has never been a stickler for balanced budgets, unfettered trade, or constitutional restraints on executive authority (when the executive is a Republican). It has always been happy to abet presidential lawlessness when doing so advanced the conservative movement’s ideological goals. Thus, the fact that House Republicans are willing to forgive Trump’s illicit efforts to sabotage the Democratic front-runner is much less significant than the Times suggests.
Some GOP lawmakers surely disapprove of the president’s actions, and oppose his impeachment primarily out of fear of their constituents’ disapproval. But the fact that Trump can inspire such fears isn’t terribly impressive. Of course, GOP primary voters won’t tolerate Republicans who take the Democrats’ side in a fight over whether their president can remain in office. No issue has higher stakes or salience for a GOP partisan. The real question — at least, for assessing the extent of the president’s intraparty power — is whether such voters will tolerate Republicans who take the Koch brothers’ side in fights with Trump over prescription-drug policy or legal immigration. So far, the answer is yes.
All this said, it is possible that Trump has genuinely conquered the GOP. The president certainly has not lobbied as hard for price controls on drugs as he has against impeachment. And while 14 Senate Republicans felt comfortable bucking Trump on immigration in February of last year, the president’s “iron grip” over his party may be stronger now than it was then.
But until Trump stops asking his co-partisans for mere courtesies (like their complicity in his attacks on the constitutional order), and starts demanding wanton betrayals of their party’s highest ideals (like the passage of policies that materially benefit ordinary Republican voters, at the expense of major industries), his “takeover” of the party will remain neither “hostile” nor complete.