Cynical GOP Operatives Are Afraid Of Trump
“From a personal standpoint, I think this president f***** sucks. He’s not even a Republican,” one Republican consultant told me, reflecting on the G.O.P.’s incipient existential crisis in the age of Donald Trump. For the first time, Washington’s Republican swamp creatures are confronted with a monster that is not of their own making: a president who is a reflexive tribalist but an unreliable conservative. It’s not exactly a crisis of conscience, at least not yet, but it’s not lost on the G.O.P. consultant class so despised by Trump that they’re doing as much as any of his most fervid supporters to prop up his flagging political standing.
Of all the aggrieved elites disoriented by Trump, none face a trickier calculation than the dark artists of the right, whose conspiratorial powers have always been oversold. Trump wouldn’t be president today if political operatives had a scintilla of the pull imagined by the commander-in-chief. It is true, however, that they don’t like the president all that much. They’re worried about his tweeting; his tone; his behavior; his character (or lack thereof)—ill will reinforced by his widely condemned response to an uprising of white supremacists and anti-Semites in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one counter-demonstrator dead. They fret about Trump’s long-term impact on the Republican Party, on the country, and what his rise means for America’s international standing as the leader of the free world. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them lower.
Yet in meeting after meeting, Republican consultants have had one consistent message for clients and prospective clients running for office in 2018. It’s a message they tell me will not change, even after the avalanche of criticism directed at Trump by fellow Republicans for his failure to immediately condemn the racists who gathered in Charlottesville and his decision to conflate them with counter-protesters. “Your heart tells you that he’s bad for the country. Your head looks at polling data among Republican primary voters and sees how popular he is,” said one Republican strategist who, like most of the nearly two dozen I interviewed for this story, requested anonymity in order to speak candidly and protect their clients. “It would be malpractice not to advise clients to attach themselves to that popularity.”
Never mind the president’s low national approval ratings; his temper tantrums and chaos at the White House. If you want to win nomination in your Republican primary and, in the hardening red state-blue state divide, the general election that follows, embrace Trump and hold on tight. “To break the dam, you have to put cracks in it, and here we are plugging up the cracks,” this strategist added. “It’s really cynical, but so is politics.”
It says much about Trump’s hostile takeover that even the most rebellious members of the G.O.P. consulting community find themselves locked into a strategic alliance that bolsters the president’s personal political interests. For years, the Republican Party has been infected by a strain of self-loathing, with base voters fingering the political professionals responsible for electing their candidates. Many Trump voters reflexively distrust the party insiders whom they saw whispering about stealing the presidential nomination from Trump at the Republican National Convention last summer. While some operatives are working quietly in the shadows, on behalf of incipient 2020 primary challengers, most find their hands are tied heading into the 2018 midterm elections, when the majority of candidates will still be aligning themselves, if conditionally, with Trump.
The larger problem is that Republican voters are still cutting the president plenty of slack. Trump’s winning coalition was attracted to his message of robust economic growth and higher wages, and that is still more important to these voters than his periodically off-putting demeanor. A not-insubstantial portion of the base relishes his politically incorrect attacks on the media and his defiance in the face of elite opprobrium over Charlottesville, and they will stand by him no matter what. “President Trump, in some parts of the country, is very popular, and people are giving him the benefit of the doubt,” said David Carney, a Republican operative in New Hampshire who is more comfortable with the president’s unorthodox style than many of his brethren. “What consultants think is irrelevant.”
Trump, it turns out, was prophetic when he boasted last year that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” On the one hand, the president’s polling is bad and getting worse: his national job approval rating has fallen below 40 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, and, according to CNN, the percentage of Republicans who say they strongly approve of his performance has fallen from 73 percent in February to 59 percent earlier this month. Still, those figures can be deceiving. A CBS News poll revealed that although 55 percent of Americans disapproved of his response to Charlottesville, 67 percent of Republicans approved and 68 percent agreed with him spreading equal blame for the violence among the white supremacists and the counter-protesters.
It’s a vexing reality for Republican incumbents and candidates who might be more willing to admonish Trump post-Charlottesville. While Trump is deeply unpopular among Democrats and a segment of more traditional Republicans, and is losing support among independents, he is holding strong in red states where anti-establishment sentiment still runs strong. The same voters who defended Trump’s racially tinged attacks on a Hispanic judge and his behavior in the Access Hollywood tape are not turning on him now. That leaves political advisers in the uncomfortable position of encouraging their clients to walk a fine line when it comes to criticizing the president, no matter how cathartic it might be for them personally.
Tim Miller, a veteran Republican operative and alumnus of former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, is a vocal Trump critic who chose a different path after Trump secured the G.O.P. nomination. But he’s discussed with his consultant friends the internal conflict many are struggling with, and he’s sympathetic. “I worked for candidates who were against gay marriage. I’m gay; I get it. You sometimes have to make choices—no candidate is perfect,” said Miller, who now lives in Oakland, California, where he is a partner at Definers Public Affairs. “But this is not just one guy out of 435 voting in [the] House,” he continued. “This is the first time in modern times where the Republican consulting class does not admire their own president in any way. How do you balance that, providing good advice so that the candidates you work for win? It’s tough, and people have taken different routes.”
The problem for Republican operatives isn’t Trump’s policy agenda, which is nominally aligned with the party’s priorities. Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court? Check. Repealing and replacing former president Barack Obama’s health-care law? Check. Overhauling the U.S. tax code? Check. Increasing military spending? Check. And so on down the line. Their problem is Trump, whose erratic behavior and chaotic West Wing have made executing on that agenda nearly impossible. Especially after watching his handling of events in Charlottesville, many Republican consultants, inside and outside Washington, think the president is a bad guy—something none can recall thinking about President George W. Bush nor the two presidential nominees preceding Trump, Senator John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
“Your heart tells you that he’s bad for the country. Your head looks at polling data among Republican primary voters and sees how popular he is.”
The Republican political class had myriad frustrations with all three. But with Trump, the issues are more personal than political. His self-regard, cavalier relationship with the truth, and ideological malleability go beyond anything they have experienced during years toiling to elect other admittedly imperfect politicians. In my interviews with G.O.P. strategists, I kept hearing the same things: “I have a hard time taking him seriously; I don’t believe he’s a true conservative,” one pollster told me. Another adviser said: “I’m not a fan of Trump, but I don’t hate him. Most of the time, I just shake my head and say: ‘Really?’”
Republicans’ Trump schizophrenia has trickled down to policymaking. They worry about the president’s destructive behavior squandering the opportunities presented by full G.O.P. control of the government. They also worry about success validating Trump’s rude antics, forever altering American political discourse. “I can be supportive of policies the president is backing. It’s the method that concerns me—the tweeting, the things he says, [the] dust-up with [MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski,] those things,” a Republican who advises members of Congress said. “I’ve watched how he just went and ruined the decorum of presidential rhetoric. That’s where my angst with him lies.”
It’s a confounding predicament for Washington elites whose power is threatened by their piety. Politics, and therefore political consulting, are in the throes of disruption at the hands of an interloper with little respect for the party apparatus and political ecosystem that made his ascent possible. For the Republican strategists on the front lines, Trumpism presents a stark choice as they look toward another epoch-shaping election in 2018. Whether they cave, rebrand, or present better ideas may portend whether Washington will see another of Trump’s kind or a return to normalcy.
Date Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017 , Total Page Views: 1860