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We're a year and a half from the 2020 presidential election, and the campaign has already been a shape-shifting thing, with the biggest Democratic field in history, and a Republican president determined to prove that he and he alone can defy political gravity, a second time.
The Democratic herd will thin itself out, of course; it’s subject to the same law of political thermodynamics as the president*: things fall apart. Majorities narrow. Bedrock constituencies have second thoughts. Lately, everyday GOPeople have done just that, pushing back against the transmitted wisdom of the Republican church.
From those occupying the seats in Congress to the ones in folding chairs at town halls, Republicans are starting to think for themselves vis-à-vis Trump's legislative agenda, and who on the other side might be in a position to stop it a year from November. That fact will be problematical for a White House determined to establish a sense of Republican invincibility, behind a single party identity. The reliable party catechism—“Republicans fall in line”—may be falling out of favor with the people who matter most: Republicans.
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We got a taste of this back in April, when Trump was soundly rebuffed in two of his choices to fill seats on the Federal Reserve Board. Nominations of Herman Cain, Godfather's Pizza magnate and comic fixture of the 2012 presidential election (“Nine nine nine!”), and Stephen A. Moore, Fox News economics mouthpiece, were scuttled after both faced a brutal drubbing in the media.
Since then, we've seen numerous cases of ordinary people in deep-red district rethinking the depths of their allegiance to Republican orthodoxy. The biggest example of this just happened. Trump’s over-the-top plan to impose gradually escalating tariffs against Mexico, without Mexico making advances on undocumented immigration, got the cold shoulder from a broad swathe of Republicans on the Hill.
“There is not much support for tariffs in my conference, that's for sure,” McConnell said on June 4. “We're still hoping this can be avoided.” McConnell's comments were echoed or preceded by statements from Sens. Rand Paul, John Kennedy and Rob Portman, Republicans all.
Trump’s 11th-hour announcement of an agreement (one apparently in the works for months) on June 7 happened so surgically for one reason: Republicans in Congress wanted nothing to do with tariffs on Mexico. At all.
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Republicans on the Hill collectively resisted Trump administration efforts to name Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia attorney general, and bête noire of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as the next head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Cuccinelli began in that role anyway on June 10, installed by Trump in the post on an acting basis (like too many in the administration are now) but Senate leadership fought Cuccinelli tooth and nail. “He’s spent a fair amount of his career attacking Republicans in the Senate, so it strikes me as an odd position for him to put himself in to seek Senate confirmation,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said to Politico days earlier. “It’s unlikely he’s going to be confirmed if he is nominated,” Cornyn said.
“They’ll go forward with it or they won’t, but I will suspect he’ll have plenty of obstacles once he gets here,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune to Politico, calling any Cuccinelli confirmation “a long shot.” Trump got his way, but only in the short term; Cuccinelli will likely be a temp worker for some time to come. And the episode underscores a building narrative that’s hard to refute: Little by little, Trump is being challenged by those of his own party more aggressively, and defiantly, than ever before.
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It would be tempting to write this off as typical internal politics announcing itself, if it weren't for how it undercuts the image of unanimity—of electoral inevitability—the Trump administration has fiercely cultivated and presented to the American people. Instead, emerging resistance to Trump by other Republicans points to a growing independence unlikely to subside between now and 2020.
As the election gets closer, Republicans in Congress up for election next year will increasingly be compelled to answer—to their constituents—for various Trump legislative action items that never came to fruition, despite the promises he made on the campaign trail in 2016.
That points to the challenge Trump confronts with the electorate between now and next year. To the extent that fissures exist in the presumably solid Republican bloc in Congress, it makes sense that similar fissures exist around the country, in what House Trump has long characterized as “the Base" —the very core of voters who sent Trump, and Republican lawmakers, to Washington in the first place.
It also indicates the risk in thinking of demographic silos in American politics. The idea that rank-and-file Republicans are a solid, unblinking, unchanging monolith has historically been an effective fiction, but a fiction just the same. They're no more a monolith than Democrats or African Americans or women are. The proof is in current events.