Donald Trump is the first President in history to have a Cabinet meeting go viral. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must watch the video of Trump going around the table on Monday morning and eliciting gushing testimonials and expressions of loyalty from his own appointees.
Mike Pence set the tone, saying, “The greatest privilege of my life is to serve as Vice-President to a President who is keeping his word to the American people, assembling a team that is bringing real change, real prosperity, real strength back to our nation.” Elaine Chao, the Transportation Secretary, thanked Trump for “getting the country moving again.” Sonny Perdue, the Agriculture Secretary, assured the President, “I just back got from Mississippi: they love you there.” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, described working for Trump as “great honor.” And Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, thanked the President for “the opportunity and the blessing that you have given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”
So it went—part North Korean Politburo rah-rah session and part opening scene from “The Godfather.” A willingness to genuflect before a thin-skinned egomaniac is the price of serving in—or working closely with—this Administration. But why are so many powerful people willing to pay this price?
In his remarks on Monday, Priebus, the former head of the Republican National Committee, offered a clue to the answer. Priebus’s use of the word “blessing” rightly earned him some ridicule, but his assurance to Trump that the machinery of government was working to further “your agenda” was much more significant. Clearly, Priebus and his fellow-Republicans want Trump to believe that the agenda being advanced in Washington today is his, and for the President’s supporters to believe this, too. But that’s not necessarily accurate.
In Trump’s campaign speeches, his biggest applause lines came when he promised to prevent people from Muslim countries from entering the United States, when he pledged to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and when he advocated protectionist measures to save American jobs. Trump generated support and momentum for his campaign by offering voters an inflammatory brew of Islamophobia and economic nationalism. Today, however, this agenda is largely stalled. The courts have rejected the anti-Muslim travel ban, and Congress has rejected the wall. Meanwhile, Trump himself has embraced the Saudi Arabian monarchy, which helped popularize Islamist extremism, and has backed off from his threats to withdraw from NAFTA and impose hefty tariffs on goods from Mexico and China.
In the place of Trumpism, the Trump Administration is promoting and facilitating a much less popular agenda, which will end up hurting many Trump voters: the anti-government agenda of post-Reagan Republicanism. Controversial policies that conservatives have wanted to introduce for years are making their way through legislative and administrative processes. To be sure, the progress has been uneven, and the Trump Administration still hasn’t passed a landmark piece of legislation. But look closely.
In the Senate, a group of Republicans is quietly working on a health-care bill that, it seems, will largely mimic the toxic American Health Care Act, which the House of Representatives passed last month. (Under the A.H.C.A., subsidies for purchasing health insurance would be reduced; premiums would go up, especially for the sick and elderly; and Medicaid would be slashed.) Just as radical as the contents of the bill is the way that it is being developed in utter secrecy. Evidently, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, intends to keep it under wraps until a few days before he forces a floor vote, which was the same tactic that Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, used in the lower chamber. If things go according to plan, there will be no committee hearings, no input from outside groups, and no independent scoring of the bill from the Congressional Budget Office.
House Republicans, meanwhile, passed the Financial CHOICE Act, last week, which takes aim at the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act of 2010. The House bill would eliminate or weaken many elements of Dodd-Frank, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which helped uncover that Wells Fargo was ripping off many of its customers. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to crack down on Wall Street. But, after the election, he quickly abandoned that promise. On Monday, the Treasury Department issued a report on financial regulation that endorsed loosening many of the post-financial-crisis restrictions that banks face.
Legislation is only part of the story. On the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch is already demonstrating why the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing groups were so giddy about his nomination. And, at regulatory institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board, Trump has appointed, or is in the process of appointing, officials who hew to the lines laid down by conservative think tanks and their corporate donors.
About the only areas that Trump has ruled off-limits are Social Security and Medicare. And even here Republicans are exploiting his ignorance, or lack of interest, in order to make cuts. Enacting the American Health Care Act would deplete the Medicare Trust Fund. And Trump’s own budget would cut disability-insurance benefits, which are part of the Social Security system.
Trump isn’t merely enabling the Republican right; with his daily pratfalls and incendiary statements, he is also drawing attention away from the Party’s policy initiatives. Imagine for a moment if a more normal Republican—a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush or a John Kasich—were in the White House. With no James Comey, Robert Mueller, or Jeff Sessions to chew on, the news networks would surely be focussing on health-care reform and the scandalous manner in which the G.O.P. is trying to ram through a piece of legislation that would affect a sixth of the American economy and cause tens of millions of Americans to lose their insurance.
Back in the nineteen-seventies, Lord Hailsham, an eminent British jurist, popularized a term for this type of behavior: elective dictatorship. He applied it to the British system, in which a government that has a healthy majority in Parliament can ride roughshod over the opposition. With Trump in the White House and the Republicans running Capitol Hill, elective dictatorship appears to have crossed the Atlantic.
Small wonder, then, that so many Republicans are willing to kiss Trump’s ring. He’s given the G.O.P. what it has long wanted: a White House willing to go along with its reactionary agenda, and a President who provides it with political cover. As long as Trump sticks to his side of the deal, he can expect to receive the loyalty he so prizes.