A weak, easy-to-manipulate president is what they want
Over the course of approximately one year in office, Donald Trump has made it clear that he possesses no hidden depths and is exactly as lazy, ignorant, and unprepared to be president as he appeared to be on the 2016 campaign trail.
He’s also amassed a level of support from Republican officials that he never had as a candidate, turning once-fierce opponents into strong supporters and utterly quieting the significant doubts that GOP leaders in Congress once held about him.
It’s not a coincidence. Conservatives embrace Trump not despite his inability to conduct the functions of his office in a satisfactory manner, but because of it.
Trump performs symbolic politics that meets the emotional and representational needs of the Republican base, and his laziness and ignorance have removed what GOP leaders most feared about candidate Trump — the possibility that he would govern in an ideologically heterodox or moderate manner.
Indeed, because he is so exceptionally unwilling to put in the time to do the job properly, he ends up hewing more rigidly to conservative dogma than even the most establishment-oriented alternative you can imagine.
Trump doesn’t really run the Trump administration
Donald Trump is not really running the Trump administration. It’s been apparent for months but has been driven home recently amid a flood of stories confirming it.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), for example, recently reached an agreement on immigration policy that they wanted to present to the president. But Stephen Miller, the White House’s chief immigration ideologist, was afraid Trump would agree to the Graham-Durbin proposal, so he secretly invited anti-immigration hardliners from Congress to the meeting to scuttle the deal.
Graham and Durbin thought they’d be meeting with Trump alone on immigration. A concerned Stephen Miller, stung by Trump’s previous verbal deal with Schumer and Pelosi, made sure that wasn’t the case. https://t.co/p6h7FcnDSt
— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) January 12, 2018
That was a smart move. Earlier in the week, during a televised meeting, Trump accidentally agreed to a proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that was totally at odds with his administration’s position and had to rely on Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to take control of the meeting and rescind the president’s agreement.
Also on Thursday, Trump — confused by a Fox News segment — criticized his administration’s own position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reauthorization and had to be speedily talked out of it by Speaker Paul Ryan and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
About yesterday’s FISA “ping-pong” by the president… Ryan had to call for 30 mins to explain surveillance policy to Trump. Lawmakers freaked out. Kelly intervened. POTUS was confused. https://t.co/mD6Q8qRlv2
— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) January 12, 2018
This kind of thing is an annoyance to Republicans, but Trump spending hours a day on “executive time” and not understanding the issues at hand is actually preferable to them than if he did the work.
On a range of important issues — especially related to taxes and spending — Trump’s instincts are at odds with conservative orthodoxy, and it’s important to GOP leaders that they can manipulate the president to abandon his own ideas.
Trump keeps getting talked into small government
On January 10, CNBC’s Eamon Javers reported that a senior administration official told him with dismay that on infrastructure policy, “the president’s inclination is just ‘spend money.’” Congressional Republicans want a totally different policy in which the government hands out a handful of tax breaks.
The good news, from a conservative standpoint, is that nobody in the administration was actually working on putting together a proposal along the lines of “spend money.” Instead, Trump’s team is working with congressional Republicans on a plan that reflects their preferences and trying to talk the president into the idea.
“There’s an outline of a plan that [White House economic adviser] Gary Cohn has put forward,” Javers quotes a senior GOP congressional aide as saying, but “I’m not sure if Trump is completely on board with that.”
Cohn himself, not coincidentally, was brought in to babysit the president during his Thursday interview with several Wall Street Journal reporters, during which Trump duly repeated the dubious notion that a relatively small quantity of tax incentives could lead to trillions in new infrastructure spending.
Months earlier, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney openly bragged to Politico that he tricked Trump into violating his campaign promise not to cut Social Security.
He persuaded Trump that the Social Security Disability Insurance program is not really part of Social Security. (Of course, both the name and the fact that it is administered by the Social Security Administration are good clues that it is.) Rather, Trump was made to believe the program belongs to some amorphous category known as “welfare.”
Even earlier in his tenure in office, Trump was somehow persuaded to embrace Medicaid cuts he’d campaigned against. Campaign-era promises to reinstate Glass-Steagall financial regulations, protect clean air, cover everyone in Obamacare reform, and close the carried interest tax loophole have all been long forgotten.
The result is an administration that’s been much more conventionally conservative in its policymaking than one might have expected — and much less popular as a result. It’s Trump’s sloth and ignorance that makes this possible.
Trump’s political instincts may be somewhat scattered to begin with, but normally, politicians find that the responsibilities of executive office temper their views.
Normal executives moderate to pursue popularity
When Vice President Mike Pence was a House member, he was known as a conservative firebrand. When he was elected governor of Indiana, he mostly governed as an orthodox conservative. Like many other Republican governors from around the country, however, he found himself embracing a Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act despite the objections of the right wing of his party.
The reason wasn’t mysterious — the amount of federal dollars on offer was simply too much for many governors to turn down. Practically speaking, obtaining a big injection of free money is a good way to strengthen your state’s economy and improve your odds of reelection.
It’s no coincidence that even though many GOP governors embraced Medicaid expansion, very few GOP state legislators ever did. State legislators — like members of Congress — simply aren’t accountable for outcomes in the way that governors and presidents are.
Most legislators at all levels enjoy safe seats and have constituents who mostly just want them to toe the party line. Presidents (and governors, and mayors, etc.) are in a different situation, with voters more likely to judge them on their results.
A capable, results-oriented Republican Party president — even a very conservative one like Pence — would be tempted to reach deals with Democrats on issues like DACA, CHIP funding, Obamacare exchange stabilization, and other issues. The smooth operation of the economy can conflict with conservative ideological goals.
An engaged, hard-working president who also shared Trump’s ideological predilections also might have pursued things like a tax cut focused on the middle class, rather than the rich, or a big boost in infrastructure spending.
Republicans like Trump just the way he is
Back during the uncertain transition period of Trump’s presidency, many congressional Democrats were quite worried that Trump would pursue a bipartisan, moderate course along these lines. That version of Trump might have been extremely popular, and would still have been in a position to advance tons of conservative priorities through appointments, regulation, and other matters.
In reality, Trump’s ability to break with the congressional GOP has always been sharply constrained by his need to forestall oversight of his corrupt mixing of politics with business.
His slothful and unfocused approach to the job, however, makes running the federal government not just difficult but completely impossible. Cutting an independent policy trajectory is very possible, but it requires actual work.
You need to fill your administration with a staff who broadly share your vision, you need to hone and articulate your vision, and you need to take the time to evaluate policy ideas on their merits, apart from the simple question of whether they come from friends or enemies. Trump does none of that and gives no indication that he would have any idea how to do so if he wanted to.
And that is exactly how his colleagues in the Republican Party like it.