Disruptive Politics - Republican Style
Donald J. Trump's win in 2016 was the first unmistakable sign of an impending political hurricane that was on a direct collision course with traditional Republican Congressmen and Senators. Most thought they could weather the storm by hunkering down with their moderate positions to protect them, expecting Presidential affairs of state to take precedence over an attack on them. Boy, were they wrong.
Turns out there were no Trump-proof hurricane shelters in D.C. They were on their own, forced to make a Sophie's choice between breaking with the traditional old boy politics of treading water (leaving important issues to decompose in the legislative pipeline) OR declaring their loyalty to the new party leader and risking criticism from their peers or their traditional Republican voter base.
Many chose to wait out the storm, hoping it would hit their neighbor's house. Others stood outside looking up at the darkening skies and said, "Bring it on!" These were the predictable ones, senators like: John McCain, Rand Paul, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, to name a few. Others became targets of the President's ire for either their inaction or their vocal opposition to him.
One of those is Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona who wrote a book critical of the President and finally ended up resigning his job effective the end of his term in 2019. Another was Tennessee Senator Robert Corker who, after announcing his intention not to run again, felt a sense of empowerment and called the White House an 'adult day care center,' among other things.
It's tempting to say that this is the normal winnowing process that occurs after every change of power. This time it's different, though, because with that change of power came a radical, and for many legislators, uncomfortable change of style - style that didn't quite fit into their own carefully cultivated self-image and they were loathe to get on board.
For the President, this train is on a fast track and has no room for picayune rhetoric or superfluous niceties. You're either a paid-up passenger or you're excess baggage. All riders must support the new 'drain the swamp' agenda. For many Republican congressional representatives and senators who've seen the storms of power pass them by without inflicting serious damage, the force and immediacy of this one is frightening to contemplate. Donald Trump is not above rubbing their nose in their past votes or their current ones. He is willing to test their mettle with taunting 'Tweets.' He wants a win and he doesn't mind if a few representatives' heads roll in the bargain. In his mind, they are collateral damage to his political construct - things that can be repaired or replaced - after the clouds recede.
I fully believe that Donald J. Trump does not expect to get a second term in the White House. This may account many of his actions. I see him as a going for broke gambler who isn't afraid to lose his bankroll or his job and is also willing to wager the jobs of others as he spins the big DC roulette wheel. He is keenly aware of the dangers the swamp holds and is equally aware of Americans' dwindling patience with government lethargy and inaction. He reads the polls, watches the news and knows that support for his ideas and promises will, eventually, run out if he doesn't get a couple of big points on the board. He knows that without a little legislative branch house-cleaning he cannot accomplish much with just a pen and a phone.
He needs new front-line troops (in a Congressional and Senate majority) that are ready to throw themselves on the barbed wire fence of the Democrats' opposition to enable his party's proposed legislation to be carried on their backs to victory. This gathering storm of Senate push-back against the President may give his detractors some cover with constituents that want more statesmanlike traditional behavior, but it won't guarantee them a win in 2018. What it will do is make the disruptive political style of America's consummate 'third way' President a referendum at the ballot box.
Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written eight books and over 750 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org