In the month that has elapsed since Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency has become undeniable even within the corners of Washington once predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt. Trump's behavior has not only sapped the morale of congressional Republicans and conservative interest group leaders, but has also repeatedly frustrated and even frightened members of his own Cabinet and White House staff. A plausible theory making the rounds suggests that one factor keeping White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in office is a shortage of other candidates willing to take what is nominally one of the most powerful and prestigious jobs in the entire country. It's now an open question whether Trump's approval rating within his own administration is any higher than the 39 percent of Americans who currently view his performance in a favorable light.
The realities of partisan politics will compel most Republicans to defend Trump in public even as they complain about him to reporters on background. Even if they do so privately, though, it is time for party members to reflect upon how a candidate like Trump was able to win the Republican nomination and sufficiently unify the party to achieve the presidency. After all, Trump hasn't really changed since he began running nearly two years ago. Nothing that he's done in office should be surprising to anyone except those who fooled themselves into expecting something different.
The democratic system works best when the same qualities that make someone a strong candidate for office also make him or her an effective leader once elected. But Republicans now face the problem that the individual attributes likely to bolster popularity within the party have become fatally misaligned with those necessary for governing success. Wasn't it a problem that Trump had no experience in public office? Not to Republican voters who scorn "career politicians" and venerate businesspeople who claim a superior background for managing the public sector. Wasn't Trump's temperament far from ideal for a national leader? Not to consumers of conservative media, where contempt and outrage are the default emotional states. Didn't Trump demonstrate little command of actual policy issues and elementary concepts? Not to vocal conservative authorities who dismiss reporters and intellectuals as snobby liberal hacks.
The other Republicans who ran against Trump in the 2016 primaries often shied away from confronting him directly, in part due to a strategic calculation that Trump would likely implode on his own and leave his supporters up for grabs. But few of the anti-Trump volleys that were made during the campaign focused on what are now clearly Trump's most consequential flaws. Instead, the usual Republican playbook of "attack-from-the-right" prevailed, emphasizing Trump's imperfect devotion to conservative ideological doctrine. These charges didn't stick with Republican voters, in large part because of the extent to which anti-Obamaism and anti-Clintonism represent foundational tenets of contemporary conservatism as defined by right-of-center media personalities. And nobody in the Republican presidential field was more of an "anti-Obama" figure than Trump, in both senses of the term: as an outspoken critic of Obama and as his ultimate antithesis. Plus, Trump's signature issue was immigration, and he made sure nobody got to his right on a subject of major current concern to the Republican popular base.
Trump's electoral triumph demonstrates the considerable power of cultural, nationalist, and ethnic resentment as engines of popular mobilization. However, a party that rewards skill at stoking such sentiments rather than policy fluency or governing competence is asking for trouble—and now the trouble is here. Democrats, of course, find nothing to celebrate in Trump's record so far. But Republicans who prioritize the implementation of sound conservative policy are also being primed for disappointment. The GOP is in such a state that it cannot, by its own admission, be counted upon to avoid a government shutdown or a possible default on the national debt this year—much less to develop and enact successful initiatives on health care, taxes, financial regulation, and other topics.
After just four months, a remarkable despondency has set in within Republican ranks about the prospect of a legislatively productive 115th Congress. Despite holding unified control of government, the party is simply unequipped for serious policy-making—a deficiency for which Trump is both cause and symptom. Republicans have honed a style of oppositional politics that has proven repeatedly effective at winning primaries and general elections alike, handing them a governing majority for at least the next two years. But this approach offers little guidance about how to exercise that power to craft specific policies, and has deposited into office a number of politicians—Trump chief among them—who are poorly positioned to take advantage of the opportunity.
For various reasons, Democrats are much less susceptible than the GOP to the rise of Trumpian candidates who are indifferent to mastering the mechanics of government on behalf of feasible policy objectives. But the rise of Trump as a uniquely powerful villain raises the danger that Democratic politics will also tilt farther toward symbolic demonstrations of opposition at the expense of other goals and values, benefiting future Democratic candidates who are the savviest at positioning themselves against Trump rather than those who offer the best promise of effective leadership. The emergence of a political climate in which both parties are driven primarily by fear and hatred of the other side has a number of important consequences, but the routine enactment of good public policy is certainly not among them.