President Trump’s critics see an overbearing would-be tyrant, a man who wants to take away their health care, reproductive freedom and right to vote, and overpower his adversaries. But what’s killing Trump right now is not his deserved reputation as a bully and a con man; it’s his growing reputation as a weakling.
The perception of weakness flows from Trump’s inability to repeal and replace Obamacare and the success his enemies are having in defining him as an untrustworthy extremist deserving of investigation.
Trump is in no danger of losing his base of Republican voters; 85 percent approve of the job he’s doing, and 74 percent say they believe he is getting his agenda passed into law. But support is hemorrhaging among conservative elites, who increasingly see him as a threat, not an asset, to their agenda.
“The premise of the value proposition that [Trump] voters bought into was: This guy knew about the art of the deal and that he could break through ‘Washington,’ break through political norms, and get things done,” a conservative Republican congressman told BuzzFeed. “Things aren’t getting done, and that shows weakness.”
Chris Wallace, the pursed-mouth Fox News anchor, scoffed at the false White House accounts of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian government attorney offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Reliably charitable to Trump in the past, Wallace now depicts Trump’s critics as the political mainstream.
“This really shouldn’t be a matter of liberal vs. conservative, pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump,” Wallace said. “If you’re a fair-minded citizen, you ought to be concerned about the fact that we were repeatedly misled about what this meeting concerned.”
Trey Gowdy, ambitious young Republican and faithful water-carrier in the faux Benghazi scandal, dismissed the White House’s ever-changing Russia stories with a personal dig about the “amnesia of the people that are in the Trump orbit.” Gowdy doesn’t sound afraid of Trump.
To prevail against public opinion, Republicans need three different forms of political strength from the president: message discipline to unify the Republican coalition and deflect Democratic critics; plausible threats to those who don’t toe the party line; and tangible rewards to those who do.
Trump has no message discipline, perhaps because he doesn’t really believe in the Republican agenda. He called the House Republicans’ health care proposal “mean,” concisely summarizing the Democrats’ argument for why it should be rejected.
He didn’t offer support to Republicans willing to take a political risk in supporting a deeply unpopular piece of legislation. He didn’t rally his supporters to bolster senators under fire from angry constituents and upset governors. He barely tweeted at all about the Senate health care plan, even as it was crashing and burning.
His threats to those Republicans who broke ranks appear as bluster. He said he would be “very angry” if the Senate didn’t repeal and replace Obamacare. But when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan foundered, Trump responded with confusion, not anger. In the span of three days, he called for a simple repeal of Obamacare, then said he would “let Obamacare fail,” then demanded the Senate stay in session through August and come up with another health care plan without any suggestion of what might command a Republican majority. He threatened to retaliate against two Republican defectors on the health bill, apparently unaware that they won’t be up for re-election until 2022.
What Trump is losing is his insurance policy against impeachment. Where his supporters once scoffed at the idea, they can no longer dismiss it.
In a scathing editorial, the editors of the Wall Street Journal warned that if Trump’s approval rating stays below 40 percent, all Republicans will suffer the consequences, likely leading to a win for Democrats in the House, which would only lead to more intense investigations.
“Impeachment will be a constant undercurrent if not an active threat. His supporters will become demoralized,” the Journal predicted.
If the Democrats win back control of the House of Representatives—which is possible but by no means certain—they will be in a position to vote on articles of impeachment. Trump’s supporters will not only be demoralized heading into the 2020 presidential election, they may be tempted to vote for impeachment based on the facts of the Russia investigation and the theory that a President Mike Pence might be a better long-term bet for implementing the Republican agenda and winning the White House in 2020.
After the first six months of Trump’s presidency, that theory is looking more plausible.