Donald Trump has changed his Party affiliation five times since 1987. In the last decade, he joined the GOP in 2009 having been a Democrat for a while. So what brought him over to the GOP? Apparently he was motivated by the conviction that the President who was elected in 2008 was an African muslim, a position which he flogged mercilessly for two years, until he quit the Party in 2011. He then came back in 2015 to run for President/boost his brand recognition, having seen a number of business ventures falter in the intervening years. And then he won.
Regardless of his motivation, no matter how you look at him, Trump was never a true believer in Republican conservatism, the Tea Party movement did not get his blood pumping, and he has only a hint of conservative fiscal policy in his bones. On the social side of the conservative agenda, he has been, on the record, directly opposed to much of the "family values" agenda the GOP has espoused since the 1980s. Indeed, his personal life stands as testament to his disagreement with the agenda of the moral majority, fathering five children with three different women, two of whom he divorced after being unapologetically unfaithful.
I recount this to raise the following question: Do Republicans owe their loyalty as members of a Party to Donald Trump, now the President-Elect and the de facto leader of the GOP?
It seems that thus far, this will be a wedding of convenience; Republican Congressional leadership is waxing rhapsodic about how the American people have given themselves a united government, and thus a mandate to advance the long-stalled Republican agenda.
Just as Democrats seized the moment in 2008 and passed a flurry of "progressive" legislation, signed into law by the progressive/liberal President, so too are Republicans hoping to see their agenda move forward over the next two years and be signed into law by a conservative President.
But the Republican's President isn't one of them, and two years is a long time in politics. Indeed Trump was elected through a primary campaign that was hugely disruptive, if not downright destructive, of the GOP narrative. Trump rode a wave of his own making that most times was openly dismissive of long held conservative beliefs, and his campaign was, in turn, openly dismissed by most of the conservative leadership. Trump gives no sign of being either an ideologue or even a partial believer in the GOP ideology. He is pro-business and pro-wealthy but only insofar as those align with his pro-Trump stance. And that last, pardon the pun, trumps all other concerns.
So going forward, I think we could either see: A) an open conflict between Trump and Congress erupt in the first year, as their mutual areas of agreement will be rapidly exhausted. Congressional GOP leaders are all proud, wealthy, white men, most of whom were openly disparaged by Trump during the campaign and all of whom know how to nurse a grudge. The longer serving members of the Party also have a nearly reflexive defense of their branch of government, and are long conditioned to automatically reject an Executive who seeks to seize power, as that is an expansion of government, which they deeply dislike. GOP leaders in Congress will expect Trump to go along and get along with their long repressed urges, and Trump will expect the GOP to go along and get along with his inchoate, whimsical agenda. Both will exhaust their patience with each other rapidly.
Alternatively, we could see B) a unanimity brought about by the fact that Trump has handed the reigns of domestic power to his Vice President, Mike Pence, in a deal similar to the one that Trump's son said was offered to John Kasich in the waning days of the campaign. Pence is a true believer in all of the most conservative stances of the Republican Party, and his record as governor shows that he will not hesitate to implement a reactionary conservative agenda. Trump will step away from areas of domestic policy and let Congress negotiate with itself and the VP, and the GOP agenda will advance.
I think that the latter is most probably what will happen, as Trump has clearly staked out areas of his interest and areas of his dis-interest over the last several months. So VP Elect Pence has the opportunity to turn that office into an actual seat of power unlike any other Vice President in history.
As Vice President, Pence can't sign the bills. And the Vice President has no Constitutional area of executive authority. It is a bucket of warm spit. Executive authority resides with President Trump, a man who has demonstrated time and again that his ego is beyond brittle, his id rages out of control, and his insecurities are many and varied.
So if Trump begins to feel sidelined, marginalized, or God help us all, disrespected by members of his own Party, there is no doubt in my mind that he will turn to his wonderful Twitter followers, and unleash the inner petulant child we have all come to know and loathe. Then what? If Trump seeks to back out or change the imagined agreement with Pence, or simply to take what has long been the prerogatives of the President, he will enter into conflict with his VP and with Congress. And the GOP agenda will stall out in infighting and chaos.
It seems certain that no matter which of the above power-sharing scenarios is true, the end result is that the GOP leadership will face a problem as they attempt to enact their agenda. They will have to learn to soothe the savage Trump, cater to the whims of his ego, and make him feel as though their long-held agenda is actually his idea. If they do not, this marriage will become Trump's fourth divorce, and the GOP will end up more fragmented than it has been since the days TR bolted to be a Bull Moose.
Do the Republicans on Main Street owe their loyalty to Trump or Party? Do they owe their President Elect a staunch defense of his behaviors? Do they reflexively need to back his cabinet nominees and explain his Twitter rants? Should they take the "We need to give Trump time" argument as a push back against liberals who are already howling for impeachment?
It would be a mistake of their own making to do any of the above. Trump is not a loyal believer, nor will he become one overnight. It appears we are witnessing a new definition for the traditional Honeymoon period usually granted to an incoming administration. The Party and its members need to bate their own breath and wait to see if their President Elect will stay faithful now that they are married, or if he will be out groping other priorities and fondling other agendas once his term of office begins. The latter will be true.
So now, on the record and for the future: I told you so, Republicans. Trump is not what he appears to be. He will not be faithful to your agenda, he will not value your priorities, and four years from now your Party will be a smoking ruin because you bought his act. If only there were a way to get a quickie divorce...