Don’t Count on Republicans in Congress to Tame Trump

Republican lawmakers allowed Donald Trump to humiliate them. We can’t put our hopes in them.

Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin delivers a news conference in Washington DC, April 5, 2011
Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin delivers a news conference in Washington DC, April 5, 2011 (Republican Conference)

Many center-right commentators in the United States opposed Donald Trump during the Republican primaries. When he nevertheless won the nomination, some halfheartedly threw their support behind Hillary Clinton to try to stop him.

Now that he has been elected anyway, they are hoping Republicans in Congress will rein him in.

Don’t count on it.

Constitutional guardrails

George Will, an establishmentarian thinker who has long been critical of the populist current in the Republican Party, argues in The Washington Post that the challenge for constitutional conservatives is now the same as it would have been if Clinton had won the election: “to strengthen the rule of law by restoring institutional equilibrium.”

Yuval Levin, of the National Review, agrees. He urges Republicans to recognize that, “in the long-term interest of the country as we understand it, recovering some of the constitutional guardrails American policymakers have long broken through would likely be worth more than most substantive policy gains that might be achieved by allowing a President Trump to run rampant in the name of any agenda.”

If only because some day the Democrats will be in power again.

Their return, moreover, will only be hastened and extended if we behave in power as they just did — by overreaching for transitory gains and inviting an assertive reaction from our never-all-that-ideological country.

Spine

David Frum, a speechwriter for the last Republican president, George W. Bush, is not optimistic. He writes in The Atlantic that elected Republicans, at least nationally, have followed Trump this far — “even when it violated their own declared convictions, even when he personally insulted and mocked them.”

They have chased power and the realization of their ideological dreams, even at the cost of their own integrity and dignity.

Even if they did find their spines now and tried to impose their agenda on him, Donald Trump is not one to roll over.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist, argues at the Polyarchy blog that although Trump seems to care little about the specifics of policy, he has a general nationalist-populist orientation and a desire to prove himself.

From everything we know about Donald Trump’s temperament, he is thin-skinned and wants to settle scores. He sees Paul Ryan especially as somebody to take down.

Trump may not have won the popular vote on Tuesday, but he can nevertheless claim more of a mandate than Ryan, the Republican House leader.

As Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, points out, Trump rode a wave of populism to the White House while Republicans lost seats in both chambers of Congress. His supporters would not take kindly to conservative Republicans co-opting Trump’s victory. Nor would swing voters.

The next election

If there is hope that Republicans will somehow moderate or restrain Trump, writes Ezra Klein at Vox, it is that the incentives of government are different from the incentives of opposition.

The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018 and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

Perhaps. But as we have seen in the last few years, Republican lawmakers tend to worry more about primary challenges from the right than they do about Democratic opponents in a general election.

The hard right of the party, including those conservatives who might have preferred Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, still wants Obamacare repealed; wants to see the border secured and immigration laws enforced; wants tax cuts without the spending cuts to pay for them. Trump isn’t totally divorced from the Republican mainstream either.