A presidency that began as something of a historical accident now has one-time allies looking for the exits, while a Justice Department investigation hangs over its head. So will the Trump administration be over almost before it barely began?
Donald Trump has caused mass outrage before, but reactions to his racist rant on August 15 — where he equated neo-Nazis and anti-racist activists at the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, rally, opined that “good people” were among the white supremacists, and complained about attempts to take down monuments to slavery — took things to a new level, leaving the administration in disarray.
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Left alone and shunned this week, President Trump has taken to screaming and lobbing insults at folks from his Twitter account as they turn their backs and head for the door.
Isolated, he has retreated to extreme nativist and racially charged language. He began [August 17 by] verbally spitting on two Republican lawmakers, an astounding move considering that, despite their rebuke of his recent comments, party members remain some of the only potential allies he has left. Hours later, Trump doubled down on his defense for Confederate statues, echoing phrases used by white nationalists over the weekend about the country’s “culture” being under attack.
He ended the day tweeting a discredited legend about a World War I-era US general’s killing Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. The timing appeared to be in reference to the attack in Barcelona, begging the question: Was the president of the United States suggesting that tactic? This week has arguably been the worst in his presidency and has left members of his party unsure how to pick up the pieces.
As a result, discussion of invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution — which provides for the removal of the president if they are declared incapacitated — has moved from the “comment” sections of liberal Web sites to mainstream discussion, even among elected politicians.
The storm around Trump gathered throughout the summer.
Despite holding all the levers of official power in Washington, Trump and the Republican Congress couldn’t muster the votes for their increasingly unpopular, but long-promised, repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The GOP repeal effort broke down a number of times over the last six months — seemingly for the last time in late July.
Trump appeared to make matters worse in August, when he launched a campaign against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In response to reporters’ questions, Trump hinted that McConnell should resign if he couldn’t push the GOP wish list through the Senate. McConnell fired back, telling reporters that Trump “had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process” because “not been in this line of work before.”
Even Trump loyalist Newt Gingrich chided Trump to take part of the blame as “part of the leadership team. He is not an observer sitting up in the stands. He is on the field…[Obamacare repeal] was a collective failure.”
The Trump-McConnell feud was the highest-profile rift among the nominal Republican leadership in Washington, but there have been many others.
GOP leaders, even quite conservative ones, have lined up to lambaste Trump’s chaotic White House, his out-of-the-blue ban on transgender service members, and, most egregiously, his failure to denounce white supremacists after one of them rammed his car into anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 people.
Trump was already the most unpopular president at this early stage of his administration in polling history. Charlottesville drove his support down even further.
And August may not be Trump’s nadir if predictions of a federal government shutdown or a US debt default come true in September. Meanwhile, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Trump-Russia ties grinds on in the background.
For years, Republicans promised that if they had the White House and both houses of Congress in their hands, they could implement their conservative vision for the country.
But so far, the GOP juggernaut has run aground, even in the opening days of an administration when the president’s leverage is strongest. Not only did it fail to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but supporters are increasingly pessimistic about the Republicans’ ability to pass pro-corporate “tax reform,” too.
Still, while the Trump administration and Republican Congress may not have conventional legislative successes to tout, that doesn’t mean they’ve failed to advance their reactionary agenda at all — particularly on fronts where administration executive action alone is required.
Trump and his right-wing Cabinet secretaries have unleashed a reign of terror in immigrant communities; increased the military’s intervention in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria; torn up environmental regulations; turned back the clock on campus sexual assault.
And that’s not even counting the president’s rhetoric threatening war’s rhetoric threatening war with North Korea, Venezuela and Iran.
The White House may have yet to fill hundreds administrative positions, but it and its enablers in the US Senate have been efficient in packing the federal courts with right-wing ideologues who will be rewriting laws for decades after Trump has left office, whenever that might be.
With the Democratic “opposition” weak and ineffectual, the chief institutional barrier to the Republicans having their way is division among Republicans.
Relative GOP “moderates” such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska may have played the key role in sinking the GOP repeal of Obamacare. But most of the intra-Republican disputes in Congress are between the right and the “further right,” grouped around outfits like the Freedom Caucus.
This isn’t just a dispute between the Republican establishment and insurgent Tea Partiers, as the lazy mainstream media often claim. It’s the culmination of a long-term shift of politics to the right that has its origin in the obscene polarization of wealth in the neoliberal era.
As of late 2015, about 400 of the richest families accounted for more than half of the money given to candidates seeking their party’s presidential nominations, according to a 2015 New York Times study.
The concentration was greatest on the Republican side, where 130 families — the Adelsons, the Mercers, the DeVosses, to name a few — accounted for more than half of the money sloshing around the GOP nomination race.
In the neoliberal era, as more and more wealth has accumulated to this small group, it is able to exert influence on politicians to adopt its far-right ideology for a cost that amounts to pocket change for them.
The Mercers — the billionaire family behind Breitbart.com and Steve Bannon’s once-former-and-now-current-again paymaster — are something of an outlier in promoting economic nationalism and “alt-right” racism.
But their move last year from bankrolling Ted Cruz to landing their retainers like Bannon and communications specialist Kellyanne Conway in the White House shows the power of big money wielded for defined political purposes.
Of course, the kings of this kind of influence-peddling are the Koch brothers, who have spent more than four decades building an elaborate set of organizations and institutions to promote their extreme free-market views.
The Koch network is highly focused on recruiting and training its donors to accept and promote its extreme views, as Harvard researchers who have studied it note. Then it channels donor money into focused efforts at state and federal levels to build policy and political organizations, and for candidate recruitment and training organizations.
“In the old days, the party structure and business community held a lot more sway — now the Freedom Caucus can raise more money from outside Washington by saying these Washington groups don’t contribute to them,” a staffer for former House Speaker John Boehner told Politico in 2015. “The business community should figure out a way to talk to these guys and build relationships, because right now they look to be the future of the Republican Party.”
The Kochs and their co-thinkers set out to build what some of them openly called a “Leninist cadre” of far-right operatives to move into positions of influence in the Republican Party, as historian Nancy MacLean recently noted in her book Democracy in Chains.
This effort came to fruition in the wake of the Great Recession, where the Koch network was able to project its influence at the state and federal level, with Democrats swept from office in 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. It’s no surprise, then, that about 80 percent of Freedom Caucus members have received donations from the Koch network.
This conflict between more mainstream business conservatives and the Kochs and other ideological billionaires helps explain much of the so-called “crisis in the Republican Party.”
It’s an intramural fight that gives the appearance of disarray. But at the end of the day, the Republicans still control the federal government and 32 out of 50 state legislatures.
The “conservative mega-donors [may have] built a shadow GOP that weakened the official party,” as a Vox article described it. But the other fact to remember is that they also recognize their best hope for winning what they want goes through the Republican Party.
Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, who researches the Tea Party and these donor networks, argues that they’re like a “parasite” (in the biological sense) on the Republican host.
Studies have shown that the average Republican member of Congress has shifted much further to the right in the last decade, while the average Democratic politician hasn’t really shifted in orientation that much.
This is due to an increased capacity of business to organize, alongside a self-conscious billionaire-funded cadre of free-market ideologues that pushed on the open door of the Republican Party. At the level of mainstream politics, the polarization has moved in one direction only.
Even though leaders of the Christian Right and the Kochs have, at times, expressed dismay with Trump, their organizations helped power him to critical victories in places like Wisconsin and Ohio.
Meanwhile, the Koch network has placed dozens of its cultivated cadre at various places in the Trump administration — which arrived in Washington without the deep institutional ties to the GOP typical of a more conventional Republican, providing an opening for the Koch insurgents.
Hanging behind the Trump-GOP disarray is the looming question of what business — the real “base” that Republican politicians want to please — will do.
We got something of an answer when, in the wake of Trump’s coddling of white supremacists following Charlottesville, executives deserted two of the administration’s business advisory councils.
Blackstone Group chief Stephen Schwarzman — who once famously compared President Obama’s tax policies to Hitler’s invasion of Poland — was set to announce the dissolution of the Strategic and Policy Forum he chaired. But Trump beat him to it. Rather than suffer the indignity of a press conference with business titans denouncing him, Trump dismissed the groups by tweet.
At least from a public relations standpoint, this was a low point of Trump’s support among the US CEOs. But there might be less here than meets the eye.
For one thing, calling for Trump to publicly condemn neo-Nazis or the KKK is hardly a radical statement from these business titans. Trump’s coddling of them is well out of step with most of the official political and business leadership in the US.
For many CEOs, breaking with Trump over his reaction to the Charlottesville events is more a question of brand protection than political principle.
“Given the toxicity of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, coupled with the scale and intensity of the current debate playing out on a national stage, the perception of guilt by association could be very harmful to a company,” Ted Marzilli, the CEO of a brand management consulting firm, told a reporter. “Bombshell crises can sink a company’s perception for a very long time, and full recovery can take years.”
Last November, Trump wasn’t the first choice of American big business. Not only did Hillary Clinton appear the safer and “more electable” pro-business alternative, but Trump touted policies on immigration and trade that many sectors of business abhorred. As Charlie Post pointed out in the International Socialist Review, Trump’s support was concentrated among sections of small business, supervisors and technicians.
But once the shock of Trump’s victory wore off, big business decided to make the best of it.
Before Charlottesville, Corporate America had been conspicuous in its willingness to look beyond the daily chaos and outrages coming out of the White House, as it sought tax cuts, deregulation, attacks on labor rights and whatever other “pro-business” policies Trump and the GOP could serve up.
“Our view is it’s all about tax reform,” Scott Reed, chief strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce, told Politico. “Success would help turn the page on all the drama of the White House so far.”
Business could try to work with the Trump administration behind the scenes, while avoiding embarrassing photo ops with the president. Already, as many as 100 business lobbyists — 69 of them working at agencies they used to lobby — have moved into various positions in the administration, according to the Democratic-affiliated American Bridge 21st Century group. And in Congress, the door is always open for big business.
After the uproar over Charlottesville and Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior, the question comes down to this: Are all of the indicators of disarray — statements of condemnation from leading GOP figures, military chiefs and business CEOs; the unwillingness of experienced officials to sacrifice their credibility by accepting an administration appointment; the increasing willingness of Congress to act independently of the president — enough to bring down the tent on the Trump circus?
Time will tell. But over the last two years, Trump has overcome numerous crises and outrages that would have sunk the careers of other politicians. He’s been able to do so not because of the hero worship of his ever-shrinking voting “base,” but because people in high places have been willing to indulge him in the hopes that he’ll deliver for them.
It’s noteworthy that Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona — who has written a whole book denouncing Trumpism — still votes with Trump 93 percent of the time, according to Five Thirty Eight.com.
So before we get too far ahead of events and prepare to oppose President Pence, let’s remember that there are plenty of political and business leaders who are willing to salvage the administration.
But we should also remember that the policies all of these Republicans want are enormously unpopular. Flake, the faux fiery critic of Trump, voted for a version of Obamacare repeal legislation that had the support of 17 percent of the public.
The point is that whatever the state of their internal battles, Trump and the Republicans are more vulnerable now than ever. It’s high time for the anti-Trump majority to make its voice heard — in the way that millions did on January 21, for example — to reject Trumpism and all its works.