You’ve probably heard the story. It’s said that in ancient Rome, the emperor had a member of the Praetorian Guard who, amid all the pomp and all the accolades, would stand behind him and murmur: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.”
Sadly, the Little Caesar who currently rules the United States from the nearest Trump golf course is instead surrounded by guards who murmur enthusiastically, “Anything you say, boss. You’re a genius!”
The new chief of staff, Marine vet John Kelly, allegedly was supposed to rein this kind of stuff in, but while the meetings now may run more smoothly, his boss continues tweeting any nonsense he hears from Fox & Friends, declares himself pretty much the greatest president ever and casually threatens to start lobbing missiles at North Korea because he seems to think it would be cool to see what a thermonuclear fireball looks like. Locked and loaded indeed.
These sensitive papers, described to VICE News by three current and former White House officials, don’t contain top-secret intelligence or updates on legislative initiatives. Instead, the folders are filled with screenshots of positive cable news chyrons (those lower-third headlines and crawls), admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful.
You can’t make this stuff up. One glimmer of hope in all this pandemonium is that more and more, some Republican members of Congress finally seem willing to challenge their misbegotten king. Witness, for example, the three GOP senators standing up against the health care travesty, the opposition to rumors of Trump firing Attorney General Sessions or special counsel Mueller and the overwhelming passage of new sanctions against Russia — legislation Trump was forced to sign although it clearly gave him a conniption.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that staunchest of company men, told the crowd at a Rotary Club meeting back home in Kentucky this week that he thinks Trump doesn’t understand how Congress works, and “had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process, and so part of the reason I think people feel we’re underperforming is because of too many kind of artificial deadlines unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating.”
This quickly prompted belligerent comments from Trump and a volley of poison pen tweets taunting the Senate’s inability to repeal Obamacare, starting with this one:
“Senator Mitch McConnell said I had ‘excessive expectations,’ but I don’t think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Aug. 9, 2017
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported over the weekend that “President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 — as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. weren’t involved.
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles. Mr. Trump has given no indication that he will decline to seek a second term.
The “sheer disarray surrounding the presidency” has “prompted Republican officeholders to take steps unheard of so soon into a new administration.” That includes Vice President Mike Pence, who The Times notes already has set up a fundraising committee and hired a new chief of staff with more experience running campaigns than governing.
The Times piece created such a stir that Pence immediately denounced it as “disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team,” prompting The Washington Post to ask, why did the story make the vice president so hot and bothered? What is he so touchy about? Hmmm…
The fact is, the catastrophe that the Republican Party has brought down on itself with this president is of such a magnitude that it may never recover, even if Mike Pence ends up taking over ahead of schedule. Party leaders are looking at Trump’s poll numbers (plus a Real Clear Politics generic poll that shows Americans now favoring a Democratic Party-controlled Congress by almost 9 points). And they’re experiencing the genuine dysfunction at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
So far, the few GOP higher-ups who publicly have expressed concern about all this seem to have done so more out of frustration and expedience than principle. The one exception would appear to be Arizona’s US Sen. Jeff Flake, who made a splash the last couple of weeks with his book, Conscience of a Conservative, a title appropriated from a famous tome by Barry Goldwater back in the ’60s.
“Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign,” Flake writes.
And when you suddenly decide that you don’t believe what had recently been your most deeply held beliefs, then you open yourself to believing anything — or maybe nothing at all. Following the lead of a candidate who had a special skill for identifying problems, if not for solving them, we lurched like a tranquilized elephant from a broad consensus on economic philosophy and free trade that had held for generations to an incoherent and often untrue mash of back-of-the-envelope populist slogans.
The choice of Trump as candidate and president was a “Faustian bargain,” Flake declares:
We have given in to the politics of anger — the belief that riling up the base can make up for failed attempts to broaden the electorate. These are the spasms of a dying party. Anger and resentment and blaming groups of people for our problems might work politically in the short term, but it’s a dangerous impulse in a pluralistic society, and we know from history that it’s an impulse that, once acted upon, never ends well.
But that doesn’t wash with this president; Flake has mouthed off and now must sleep with the fishes (remember, too, that Flake refused to endorse Trump’s candidacy).
The president has encouraged a primary challenge to Flake and met with three contenders. What’s more, Robert Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire who contributed heavily to the Trump campaign, is giving $300,000 to a super PAC backing Flake opponent Kelli Ward.
(You’ll recall that Dr. Ward recently suggested that cancer-stricken John McCain, to whom she lost a 2016 primary, should “step away as quickly as possible” and resign from the Senate. She added that she hoped the governor would consider appointing her to fill out McCain’s term. Classy.)
Republicans should forget about any White House loyalty to the party, especially now that Reince Priebus is gone. Trump has none — witness not only his attacks on incumbent senators Flake and McConnell but on any Republican not toeing the line or groveling in his general direction. Also note how he refers to Republicans as “they” and “them,” not “we.”
Plus, there’s a set of poll numbers he sees, too — as unpopular as he is, voters like Congress even less. According to a new CNN poll, “only about a quarter of all Americans (24 percent) judge the Republican Congress a success so far. President Trump gets the approval of 38 percent of Americans.”
Even as he mocks them, most of Republican leadership continues to grovel at the Trump shrine as they hope to continue the “sugar high,” as Jeff Flake calls it, that carried them to victory last year and which they keep thinking will advance their moribund agenda. But Trump’s base may not be buying it and already is turning on them. Trump sees this and will seize upon it as any opportunistic creature does with easy prey. Add to this lust for self-preservation an ego the size of a planet that takes credit for everything and blame for nothing.
And so, this scenario: Within months, Donald Trump has so riven the GOP that there is no unity left among Republicans except for those who see him as the second coming. Party members who attempt to field a Never Trump movement are as hapless as they were in 2016 and provide only token opposition to the careening Trump steamroller, despite its ever-expanding catalogue of catastrophe. If he hasn’t been drummed out of office, the Donald abides.
But Trump has no use for Republicans anymore, even if they provide him cover on Capitol Hill and a network of connections to deep pockets. He will announce the creation of a third party that will drumbeat for the re-election of Trump/Pence, incite the base and field its own slate of congressional candidates in 2020, perhaps even as soon as 2018.
It will, of course, be called the Trump Party.
You’ve been warned.