November 16, 2018 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Will a Republican Primary Trump?
Be on the lookout for reactions to the president's popularity.
I have no idea what’s going on with Michael Avenatti. Maybe he was charged with domestic violence. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe his arrest Wednesday was a hit job by the same mooks who tried smearing Robert Mueller. I don’t know. I doubt anyone does.
But the fact that Avenatti is getting even a little attention from Democrats, with respect to 2020, seems a bit premature. Not because he’s an accomplished ambulance chaser capably representing porn actress Stormy Daniels. Attention paid to anyone considering a run for the Democratic nomination seems less interesting right now than the possibility of a Republican challenging a Republican president.
Republicans were for Donald Trump after he won, but that support stemmed mostly from the broad misconception that the president had some kind of magic touch, that he could defy Washington and conventional wisdom, that he could, almost literally, shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and the base of the party would still adore him.
The base does adore him, but it’s getting smaller, as last week’s midterms made clear. Trump’s scorched-earth campaign of bull-horn fascism (remember “the caravan”!) drove out GOP voters, but it drove out even more Democratic voters. True, the Democrats fell short of winning the Senate, but they gained two seats, making the net gain for Senate Republicans one or two seats. The Democrats burst Trump’s bubble. They haven’t won this many seats, nearly 40, since the aftermath of Watergate.
With the House Democrats in charge, the Republicans who stood cheek-to-jowl with Trump must now consider a new political calculus: how much should I stick with a guy who’s almost certainly going to become less popular overall as the Congressional investigations bear down on him (though still very popular among Republicans), and as Robert Mueller reveals more information that could potentially undermine his legitimacy even more? As the president spirals downward, so does my future?
In other words, Republicans must reassess their incentives. Is it better to support Trump outright or (meekly) stand against him? Is there a middle way to consider? The answers to these questions will depend on what House Democrats do with whatever they make public. It will depend on Mueller, too. (The imminent indictment of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange does not bode well.) It will depend on how far Trump is willing to go to shield himself legally. The Republicans have a lot of hard thinking ahead, and that thinking will determine their behavior for the next two years.
Even so, none of this means a Republican will challenge Trump in 2020. It’s one thing to have weak incentive to stick with him. It’s another to have strong incentive to take an enormous risk. So be on the lookout for reactions to Donald Trump’s popularity.
History suggests that if the president slips below 40 percent and stays there (hovering around 35 percent for months), factions within the Republican Party will worry that he can’t be reelected and search for a viable challenger. This happened to Jimmy Carter in the run up to 1980. (Ted Kennedy stepped forward.) It happened to George H.W. Bush in run up to 1992. (This time, it was Pat Buchanan.) In both instances, the incumbent came out on top, but not before his same-party rival mortally wounded him.
I don’t think history repeats itself, but the indicators are not good for Trump.
Fact is, he is who he is. He’s incapable of speaking kindly or impartially about anyone who isn’t deemed loyal. He does not act like the president of the United States. He acts like the president of United Republicans. The less people pay attention to him, meaning the more they pay attention House Democrats, the more likely Trump is to isolate himself—literally, from his staff, the Cabinet, the public, everyone.
After the midterms, Trump failed to perform the fundamental duty of any American president: act as the head of state, honor the war dead, and observe the solemnity of the anniversary of the end of World War I. He failed, because something about him changed nearly overnight last week, according to the LA Times’ Eli Stokols.
With the certainty that the incoming Democratic House majority will go after his tax returns and investigate his actions, and the likelihood of additional indictments by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump has retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment, according to multiple administration sources.
It might be a good thing for the president to stay in his “cocoon of bitterness and resentment,” as long as he’s quiet about it. Republican leaders have been asking him to shut up ever since he took office. But the odds of Trump remaining silent, as the Democrats and Mueller move forward, are slim. Donald Trump is Donald Trump.
That’s about the only thing we know for sure.
Letter to the editor
Well said, John. However, I do think the fact that the senior Congressional leadership is so “senior” is a problem. This is not ageism, but recognition that one of the other forms of incumbency that needs some shaking up is greater diversification at the top by age demographic. It is not enough to represent women or people of color or certain religions or ethnicities when one of the key demographics that got you elected—youth—is so obviously disregarded by a sclerotic power structure that rewards longevity.
The starkness of that difference is apparent between the respective House leaderships. Republicans may be all white and male, but at least they are not all over 70 (nearing 80). The numbers speak for themselves: Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi (78); Democratic Whip, Steny Hoyer (79); Democratic Chief Deputy Whip, John Lewis (78).
Now compare that to GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (53), Republican Whip, Steve Scalise (53), Republican Chief Deputy Whip, Patrick McHenry (43), and former House Speaker, Paul Ryan (48). Hell, even the roster of nine Democratic deputy whips (Republicans don’t have this form of largess) is only marginally better: Jan Schakowsky (74), Diana DeGette (61), G.K. Butterfield (71), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (52), Keith Ellison (55), Terri Sewell (53), Peter Welch (71).
This problem of ageism against the young is not going away. To think that a younger party carries the most older voters while the older party depends on the young is an irony of ironies. But it is one with a real sting since older voters vote at higher rates, so Republican don’t have this particular problem. But Democrats—the party presumably of inclusivity and fair representation of the population—do. —BLG
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.