January 9, 2017


What the G.O.P. Really Thinks of Trump (T.A. Frank, Jan. 9th, 2017, Vanity Fair)

The Senate is a beast of its own, and some of Trump's fiercest enemies there are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain. So let's focus in this column on Republicans in the House. Very roughly speaking, what awaits Trump there are three groups. The first, a small one, loves his populist vision and intends to hold him to it on all fronts. The second, slightly larger, is made up of Republicans who are anywhere from half to three-quarters on board--they like Trump's line on trade, or immigration, or nationalism more broadly, while dissenting on Trumpian policies on spending, or taxes, or tariffs, or Russia. A third faction doesn't buy into populism at all and seems to view Trump like an uncontrolled bull, one they hope to rig up to a generator and harness for G.O.P. energy. I'll call them the Trumpists, the Freedomists, and the Ryanists.

Start with the Trumpists. Prior to the ascension of Trump, and before it had a name, Trumpism--a Pat Buchanan-esque philosophy of economic and military self-containment--was just one school of thought among Republican outliers in the House and Senate. Those who easily fit the category were few in number--fewer than five, would be my guess, and arguably as few as zero, if you define it narrowly enough. Jeff Sessions, who in 2013 advised Republicans to choose a "humble and honest populism" over Gang of Eight-style immigration bills, is one of them. Tennessee congressman Jimmy Duncan, a trade skeptic and reliable foe of illegal immigration--plus one of few Republicans to vote against authorizing George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq--is arguably another. There are a few more. But, again, it's a small group.

This makes the Trumpists important mainly as keepers of the flame. Whatever Trump does, he wants to keep this group on board. One line that I encountered when speaking to people in this orbit was that deficit spending on infrastructure would be necessary as a bandage during hard times. That is to say: putting the brakes on globalization--with tariffs, revised trade deals, and stricter immigration control--could play near-term havoc with the economy, even if it causes longer-term benefits. The way to ease the transition is to create lots of jobs--in the construction and repair of roads, bridges, tunnels, rail lines, and airports. While that is going on--in this hopeful scenario--the private sector will complete most of its adaptations and emerge in a couple of years ready to hire, with shiny new roads and bridges at its disposal to boot. This would require tolerating considerable deficit spending, which could mean losing Republican support but gaining some among Democrats, especially those who represent working-class districts.

It's all very simple, in theory, but such plans run with a thud into group two, which I'll call the "Freedomists." (No one in Congress, to my knowledge, goes by such a label, but I'm using it as a catchall for Republicans who dissent from the establishment.) These include the Tea Party caucus, although it exists more in name than in action, and the House Freedom Caucus, which was founded two years ago and has about 30 members. The Freedomists generally espouse limited government, and they have rebelled against Republican leadership on various issues, leading the charge to oust John Boehner as House Speaker in 2015. But the strongest glue bonding them has been fiscal hawkishness. (South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney, who is among their number, will be Trump's director of the Office of Management and Budget.)

Many of the Freedomists are sympathetic to Trump. They know what it's like to battle the establishment, and most see themselves as advocates for the little guy. Virginia congressman Dave Brat, famous as the underdog who defeated donor-class favorite Eric Cantor during a primary in 2014, is among them. Brat and his supporters view illegal immigration as a gift to the cheap-labor lobby, which, as Brat reminded me in conversation, gets all the benefits of low-paid employees while palming off the large attendant costs--an average of $10,000 a year to send each child of these workers to school--on middle-class taxpayers. Brat is also generally excited by the populism of the Trump movement and told me that he fears mainly that the kludgeocracy of Washington will impede efforts to create real change. But if Trump is hoping to levy trade tariffs or raise the debt ceiling, Brat is unlikely to join him. "When it comes to sticking points, the debt ceiling is going to be it," he says. "There would have to be some credible commitment to a pro-growth corporate-rate bill that has a trillion in repatriation or something like that to get my buy-in. Otherwise, it's a no."

As Brat and many other Freedomists see it, doing away with regulations that hamstring U.S. industry will make it competitive and equip it to fight off competition from China. In this view, no tariffs will be required, nor will we need any infrastructure stimulus, at least not one that involves increasing deficits. Simply cutting red tape and regulations will unleash an economic boom in itself and revive labor markets at home. If there are tough times for a year or two, we ride them out. Proposals to increase deficit spending will therefore cause a lot of Freedomists to jump ship, and some of them, like Walter Jones, have a record of doing so even when George W. Bush was in power. Since they are over 30 in number, the Freedomists can stand in the way of party-line legislation. Quite possibly, then, Trump will find that the Freedom Caucus are supporters in spirit but obstacles in practice.

This leaves the establishment G.O.P., now called the Ryanists. In theory, the Ryanist G.O.P. is Trump's biggest headache, since it's as in thrall to Bushism today as it was 15 years ago, happy to continue down the current path on trade, war, and immigration, with a repeal of Obamacare and cuts to Social Security and (by using vouchers) Medicare to boot.

And then you get to the Senate...

Posted by at January 9, 2017 6:21 AM