Mood: Disorder

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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

The political mood in the country has changed, Mitch McConnell told his conference of Senate Republicans on Monday, recommending that they vote against opening debate on the new border bill.

Is that right? If so, that mood must have changed awfully quickly.

Hours earlier, McConnell had made the case for supporting the bill in a floor speech. As late as Monday afternoon, an aide to the Senate GOP leadership was busily fact-checking House Republicans’ misleading claims about the parade of horrors that the bill would supposedly unleash.

When did the “mood” in the country change, precisely, to warrant such a rapid reversal?

If there’s been a change in the public mood away from urgent action on the border, I’m unaware of it. On the contrary, the new bill has made the crisis sufficiently bipartisan that you can turn on MSNBC nowadays and find Al Sharpton(!) casually describing it as an “invasion.”

It’s not clear that there’s been any meaningful “mood” shift on aid to Ukraine, another component of the border package, either. A Pew poll published in December found support for arming the Ukrainians in both parties was little changed from where it stood in June 2023. What has changed is the urgency with which Ukraine’s forces need new weapons. Russia is closing in on recapturing the city of Avdiivka as a “direct result of acute ammunition shortage” caused by Congress’ dithering, per the Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign affairs correspondent.

There surely hasn’t been much of a “mood” change in Republican presidential politics, as Donald Trump’s victory has been a fait accompli for months. The last time he led by less than 40 points in national polling was early September. He cracked 50 percent in the first two primaries this year and enjoys a nearly 30-point lead in South Carolina over Nikki Haley, whose popularity has begun to suffer as populists have demonized her.

All told, nothing meaningful has changed in the country’s “mood” since McConnell deputized GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma to negotiate a border deal with Democrats late last year.

What’s changed is this: Any last shred of denial that Trump will be the nominee again evaporated in Iowa and New Hampshire, and instead of treating that as an overdue opportunity to reconsider their place in this horrible party, conservatives in Washington reacted by deciding that they need to reconcile themselves to it at all costs. Again. For the third time in eight years.

No matter how disordered the right’s politics might get.

We’ve all grown inured to political absurdity, but consider the special absurdity of this moment.

Republicans in Congress roadblocked aid to Ukraine last fall on grounds that America shouldn’t worry about another country’s borders before fixing its own. “Fine, let’s do a border bill,” said Democrats, agreeable about immigration enforcement for once. So Lankford, a respected conservative, was dispatched to work something out and ended up brokering a deal with help from the GOP’s favorite independent mediator, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. That deal was solid enough to have received a vote of confidence from the Trump-friendly union of Border Patrol agents on Monday.

Twenty-four hours later, with grassroots populists predictably howling about “betrayal,” the bill looks dead. As I write this, hawkish Senate Republicans are calling for passing a new bill that would fund Ukraine and Israel without addressing immigration—i.e., worrying about other countries’ borders before fixing our own, precisely the thing the GOP initially had wanted to avoid. Having let Ukrainian troops languish in the field for months without resupply as leverage to extract border concessions from the left, Republicans have decided they don’t want those concessions after all and have ended up right back at square one.

Whether there are enough votes in the GOP conference for new Ukraine aid to overcome a populist filibuster is an open question as I write this. Maybe we’ll hear tomorrow from McConnell that the “mood” in the country, detectable by no one except him, has changed on that as well.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said of Republicans after the border deal appeared to collapse. “They literally demanded specific policy, got it, and then killed it.” That’s not quite true; Lankford’s deal was a compromise, not a right-wing wish list. But Schatz is right to find it astounding that the GOP isn’t even making a pretense of wanting to improve the bill in the Senate or the House to try to solve a problem that everyone in the party agrees is an urgent national crisis.

In fact, according to Lankford, House Speaker Mike Johnson declined an invitation early on to participate in Senate negotiations in hopes of making the bill more acceptable to the House. He and his conference didn’t want a better bill, it turns out. They wanted no bill. Lankford’s deal isn’t dead on arrival because it’ll fail to reduce the flow of migrants—again, that’s an argument for improving it, not killing it—but because it just might succeed. Chris Murphy, the lead Democratic negotiator, explained why in blunt terms: “Donald Trump told them ‘do not pass any bipartisan legislation, because chaos at the border is good for me in my upcoming election.’ And that is the decision Republicans have made.”

One would think weakening Trump in November would be a special added incentive to support the bill for sane conservatives in the Senate desperate for this Trump-driven era of absurdity and nihilism to end. Not so. Semi-serious legislators like John Cornyn, John Barrasso, and Thom Tillis have all come out against Lankford’s bill in the past 24 hours—and none of them is so much as pretending that they’ve done so for thoughtful substantive reasons.

“I’m pretty confident we can do better with a new president who actually will enforce the law,” Cornyn told reporters when asked about his position, which is both deceptive and a non sequitur. It’s a non sequitur because Congress’ duties don’t depend on the president’s willingness to enforce statutes; if anything, the case for legislation is stronger when a president is derelict in his own duty, because it can force his hand. Cornyn’s response is deceptive because Biden does want to crack down on the border before the election, provided he can assure progressives he’s only doing so because Congress has left him no choice.

And Republicans will not “do better” in crafting new immigration laws under Trump. Barring a filibuster-proof GOP majority in the Senate next year, Democrats will make them pay for tanking this deal for such blatantly cynical reasons.

“I cannot vote for this bill,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Americans will turn to the upcoming election to end the border crisis.” That’s the logic Republicans used in 2016 to justify holding open Antonin Scalia’s vacant Supreme Court seat (“let the voters decide!”), but SCOTUS vacancies are extraordinary. If you take Barrasso seriously, Congress should follow the same approach to matters as ordinary as legislation, even when facing a problem as formidable as a national “invasion.” One wonders why the same logic shouldn’t apply to the upcoming battle over funding the government for the year. If we need to wait nine months for voters to decide what happens on the border, why not wait nine months for them to weigh in on spending as well?

What’s the point of having a legislature, in fact, if the people’s business needs to wait for the people themselves to act?

Tillis, meanwhile, issued a statement defending his own “no” vote that fretted over unnamed “highly problematic” provisions in the bill and lamented that it’s hard to trust that the Biden administration would implement any new law in good faith. That sounds like Cornyn’s complaint, but it’s more ridiculous in this case: A few weeks ago, Tillis went to the Senate floor and demanded bipartisan compromise on immigration, claiming that “the only people who love the stalemate that we have in this nation today are the cartels.”

The cartels and congressional Republicans, it turns out. Including Thom Tillis.

The punchline in this disordered mess is that House Republicans are huddling as I write this to try to find the votes to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s top deputy on immigration enforcement. At last check they were close to a majority but not quite there. Perhaps that’s because a few conservative holdouts in the conference are reluctant to impeach someone for “high crimes or misdemeanors” without evidence of high crimes or misdemeanors. But it could also be due to the surreal optics: Impeaching Mayorkas for not doing more to address the border crisis would be a bad look for Republicans at the very moment they’re conspicuously refusing to do more to address the border crisis.

All of which makes this an unusually disordered moment for a party that’s gotten used to disorder. And yet the timing is no accident. Republican primary voters made clear last month that they want Donald Trump to continue to lead their party. Conservatives in Washington have decided, essentially unanimously and inexplicably, that they’ll do basically anything to remain officers in the party Donald Trump leads.

It’s not the first time they’ve made that decision. But it feels different the third time around.

Weeks ago I wrote about the possibility of a crack-up within the Republican Party triggered by the horrendous spectacle of Trump being coronated again after a coup attempt, an insurrection, and scores of criminal charges. I stand by that, at least at the grassroots level. Conservatives who stuck it out through eight years of increasingly sinister antics might feasibly reach their limit upon realizing that most of the party really wants to do all of this again. The 20 percent or so of GOP voters who view figures like Liz Cheney and Chris Christie favorably are an unpredictable and potentially significant voting bloc come November.

But insofar as I or anyone else expected the crack-up to influence conservative legislators in Washington, we were naive. If the likes of Cornyn and Tillis aren’t peeling away now, they’re never going to. They’ve come to accept, I think, that they won’t succeed in “waiting Trump out” by staying on his good side until the base comes to its senses and finds another champion, as they had surely hoped would happen this cycle. The verdict of the primaries is that this is Trump’s party, top to bottom, and any Republican who thinks otherwise should expect to be dealt with ruthlessly.

That’s what McConnell meant by a recent change in “mood.” All other power centers in the GOP, including his own, have lost leverage to Trump. McConnell, a famously strong minority leader, couldn’t convince his own members to rally around Ukraine aid last year. Now he can’t convince them to support the first shot Congress has had at a meaningful border enforcement package in decades, even if only to put the ball in the House’s court.

He too has spent the better part of a decade trying to “wait Trump out.” He failed, and now it seems he’s given up. They all have—Cornyn, Tillis, Barrasso, every conservative in the Senate who understands that it’s a dereliction of duty not to work seriously on a legislative solution to the immigration crisis now that a rare opportunity for one has arisen. I can’t recall a moment in my lifetime when a political candidate craved disorder in the country as openly as Trump does, took steps to ensure that the disorder would continue so that he might profit by gaining power, and was abetted in that project not just by toadies but by “respectable” members of his party.

David Frum’s formulation of what’s happened here is as elegant as it is ominous. “Donald Trump has sold his supporters the dangerous fantasy that democratic politics can be replaced by one man’s will,” he wrote for The Atlantic. “No need for distasteful compromises. No need to reckon with the concerns and interests of people who disagree with House Republicans. Just somehow return Trump to the presidency: He’ll bark; the system will obey.” By taking sides against Lankford, the McConnells and Cornyns in the conference have ratified that logic. Better that government ceases to function than that Donald Trump fails to get what he wants.

All you need to know to grasp how the inevitability of Trump 3.0 has changed the “mood” among Washington Republicans is not only that J.D. Vance felt comfortable saying this on national television, but that he surely improved his chances of becoming the next vice president of the United States by doing so:

Vance understands what it means for the GOP to be Trump’s party. It means that if Trump’s political needs require disorder, up to and including facilitating a coup, a loyal Republican will do what’s necessary to engineer that disorder. Numerous populists in Congress have been following that rule for a while. By tanking the border bill, conservatives like Cornyn and Tillis are plainly now following it too.

Which seems sub-optimal considering Congress might plausibly face numerous constitutional confrontations with the executive in a second Trump presidency.

There’s something else that follows for Washington conservatives from Trump’s third coronation. The ethic of “retribution” that has consumed his latest campaign isn’t limited to targets like the “deep state.” Republicans are prime targets too. He’s always ruled the party by fear, but there have been redoubts that resisted him consistently, most notably from those who were at one time considered “establishment” Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Watching McConnell and the rest capitulate so quickly on something as important as the border deal suggests that what’s left of the institutional resistance to his whims in a second term will evaporate completely.

Influential Republicans are beginning to grasp that a second Trump term will be, in Chris Christie’s words, a “vendetta presidency.” The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Trump has told advisers he wants to prevent Ron DeSantis from winning the Republican nomination in 2028 as punishment for challenging him in this cycle. Wealthy right-wing donors have also been alarmed by Trump’s warnings not to contribute to Nikki Haley’s campaign, wondering if he’ll seek revenge by having them investigated once he’s back in power. Yesterday, he warned during an interview that the immigration bill will be “very bad” for James Lankford’s career and denied having endorsed the senator in 2022, even though he very much did.

It’s exceptionally weird for a candidate to be nursing so many grudges against members of his own party, especially ones extending years into the future, at a moment when he’s all but clinched the nomination and should be angling to unify the GOP behind him. But absent that ruthlessness, Trump wouldn’t have succeeded as well as he did in getting Senate conservatives to roll over on the new border bill. What it means for the Republican Party to have now become fully “Trump’s party” is that there’ll be no more bipartisan deals with Democrats on matters like immigration—no matter how desperately needed—that might complicate the nominee’s own perceived monopoly on delivering “law and order” to America. Or else.

Two years ago, when it was mostly Trump’s party, Cornyn felt confident enough in his own political stature to broker a deal with Chris Murphy on guns that populists inevitably hated. In 2024, when it’s entirely Trump’s party, he runs screaming from Murphy’s immigration deal at the first whiff of trouble because Trump insists on it. On both issues, the “mood” of the country was similarly grim, but Cornyn’s approach to disorder has changed as the definition of what it means to be a Republican has changed.

Although superficially unrelated, it feels fitting to me that the immigration compromise is falling apart at Trump’s behest on the same day that a federal appeals court declared his claims to presidential immunity over January 6 to be nonsense. My read on the various forms of “lawfare” being waged against him—from criminal charges to disqualification attempts under the 14th Amendment—is that they’re hastily organized attempts to hold him accountable from outside the Republican Party because all attempts to hold him accountable inside the Republican Party have pitifully collapsed. No one believed after January 6 that the right would rally behind such a lowlife again, so law enforcement perceived no need to take the fraught step of confronting a political figure with a restive cult-like following.

Everyone was naive about that, including Senate conservatives. Now faced with a choice between sticking with a party that exists to abet Trump’s worst impulses or doing what’s right for the country and taking the electoral consequences, Cornyn and the rest have decided to make peace with what partisanship requires of them. It isn’t the first time they’ve failed America catastrophically. It almost certainly won’t be the last.

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