Whatever else you want to say about him, our president is smarter than a lot of analysts think, particularly when it comes to intuiting the single largest shift in the culture. Donald Trump gets that our faith in all-powerful organizations has so completely deteriorated that he can win points and ratings by bashing even the most sacred institutions, as long as he doesn’t go after the people who rely on them.
So when Trump rips into generals, or the pope, or now the lords of professional football (whom he accuses, among other things, of trying too hard to prevent brain damage), all the commentators in my industry jump up and down and scream about how he’s courting political suicide. But soldiers and Catholics and Cowboys fans react pretty much as Trump expects them to.
Those who love the provocateur president only love him more for his audacity. Those who hate him only give him more attention. And to most everyone else, the argument over whether to trust Trump or some cloistered group of elites is pretty much a wash.
Which is why Trump’s foray into this week’s Senate primary in Alabama struck me as uncharacteristically unintuitive. Rather than kicking around the beleaguered establishment, as he usually does, Trump tried to shore it up. And the consequences of that for his troubled presidency could be severe.
Generally speaking, I’m skeptical of the outsize importance we tend to place on midcycle campaigns like the one in Alabama. We always look to some special election for Congress or the off-year governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey — the first two that occur after a presidential election — for signs of the national mood.
As often as not, the outcomes reflect nothing, really, beyond local issues and the skill sets of a few candidates we know nothing about. For all the talk about testing a president’s prestige and popularity, rarely does the White House have much ability to sway a local election more than a few points in either direction.
But perceptions matter in politics, and Trump probably should have thought about that more deeply before he plunged into the Alabama race. For whatever reason — maybe he was trying to do a solid for Mitch McConnell, or maybe he just liked this guy — Trump felt compelled to campaign for Luther Strange, who inherited the Senate seat after Jeff Sessions became attorney general.
Meanwhile, most of Trump’s supporters (including his erstwhile alter ego, Steve Bannon) got behind Roy Moore, a former justice and aspiring theocrat who, if history is any guide, would probably try to replace the Lincoln Memorial with a mountain-size replica of the Ten Commandments. Moore won the primary in an avalanche.
And just by the way, this wasn’t in Utah or Ohio, or just about any other state outside the South, where Trump’s influence right now would be questionable. This was Alabama, where Confederate flags are like street signs, and where the president supposedly remains a folk hero.
Trump immediately responded to this humiliation by deleting the tweets he issued endorsing Strange and basically pretending the whole thing never happened. It’s like I always tell my kids: Stand by your friends until they embarrass you, and then run like hell in the other direction.
Trump won’t so easily put the whole episode behind him, though, and I’ll tell you why. The plain fact is that Republicans in Washington — senators, congressmen, party insiders and hangers-on — don’t like or trust him very much, and they never have. You may not have noticed, but right now the president couldn’t persuade majorities in his own party to sign a birthday card, much less repeal the health care law.
(McConnell responded to yet another defeat on health care this week by proclaiming that Republicans were moving on to their next big priority, which is tax cuts. We came here to do the business of the American people, and so help me, we’re going to work our way down this list of policies until we’ve failed to enact each and every one of them.)
About the only leverage Trump has with his party’s congressional wing is the idea that he can create all kinds of mayhem on the local level.
Trump proved during last year’s presidential campaign that his supporters, a loud and passionate minority, can be an overwhelming force in low-turnout primaries. And so Trump’s best shot at bending all these politicians to his will was to make them believe — true or not — that he would recruit and encourage primary candidates to make their lives a nightmare if they didn’t have his back.
Related to that is that idea that Trump could also protect them from primaries if they voted the right way. In other words: You can break with me and take the chance that I’ll take you out in a nasty primary, or you can be an ally and trust me to keep the antiestablishment current from washing you away.
In Alabama, somehow, Trump managed to prove that he can actually do neither. He didn’t have anything like the sway necessary to protect Strange from a right-wing rebellion, even after he visited the state and rambled on for an hour and a half.
And it turns out that anti-Washington insurgencies will materialize and succeed even if he has nothing to do with them, so whatever threats he might make on that score are irrelevant.
You heard echoes of this from Tennessee’s Bob Corker, a moderate Republican, when he announced this week he would stand down rather than run for reelection to the Senate. Corker seemed resigned to the idea that he would have to endure a divisive and costly primary, whether Trump was with him or not.
That pretty much removes any incentive a senator might have to go along with Trump’s agenda or to defend him when he says something incredibly boneheaded, which is about twice a week.
At the same time, Trump’s choice in Alabama sent a strong signal to traditional Republican activists — especially religious conservatives, who have always viewed him with some suspicion but who embraced him as a vehicle anyway — that he’ll align against them when he feels like it.
Put that together with his recent outreach to Democrats on immigration, and you can begin to see real cracks in Trump’s already porous patchwork of Republican constituencies.
What does all this mean, practically speaking? In the short term, it means that Trump can expect to encounter more futility in Congress, just as he did on health care.
In the medium term, it means that he has almost certainly invited his own serious primary challenge in 2020 (and, as I’ve written before, I’m betting he draws more than one). If you’re John Kasich or Marco Rubio or Rand Paul, or one of the other 100 Republicans circling this White House like buzzards, watching Trump’s Senate pick get thrashed by the most reliable Republican voters in the South had to feel a little like Christmas morning.
This is how it goes at the highest levels in Washington, when you’re not just tweeting and manipulating crowds, but actually trying to build coalitions and get some things done. Making the wrong bet with your political capital can resound for years.
Hey, Mr. President: Welcome to the NFL.
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