David Hopkins posted something earlier this week on his blog arguing that, in a war between congressional Republicans and Donald Trump, Trump is at an advantage, and Vox picked up on that, interviewing him. I dissent. I've picked on Hopkins before here, and in fact, at the very start of this blog, with the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series. My disagreements are less severe here, but they are significant.
Hopkins argues that Trump basically has an advantage over congressional Republicans in a Republican civil war because he has a bigger mouth and more loyal followers in more important positions (e.g. the conservative media). There's more to it, but I'm going to focus on those aspects. All of that is true. I think Hopkins is ignoring two critical points.
First, I have been arguing for some time here that Republican elites, like congressional Republicans, have been maintaining Trump's public support by signaling to Republican voters that they should support Trump. Voters are basically mindless critters who do what they are told. They follow cues-- particularly partisan cues. Trump's support among the Republican base is a function of Republican elites' signaling of their support. While we, the political junkies, know that people like McConnell hate Trump, it is only the stray comment from Corker or Flake that breaks the wall of public support among elite Republicans for Trump. Most of them just brush aside the Russia scandals and only give half-hearted condemnations of Trump's racist and misogynist antics.
At the end of the day, Trump's support among the Republican base isn't independent of the fact that congressional Republicans still support him publicly. If they turned, in larger numbers against him, that support would crumble because there would no longer be a coherent signal that loyal Republicans support Trump out of simple partisanship. This just goes back to good, ole' Johnny Zaller and The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Republican voters, if they receive unidirectional signals of support for Trump from their trusted information sources, will support Trump. If the signals aren't unidirectional, that doesn't work.
What prevents elite Republicans from defecting in larger numbers? I have written before about the collective action problem in this very context. Mancur Olson: The Logic of Collective Action. Basic issue: there is some good that you want provided, and a lot of people need to contribute, but no one person can do it alone. Contributing is costly. So, don't bother contributing because you, alone, won't make the difference. Everyone thinks that way, so the good doesn't get provided because everyone is rational. That's the collective action problem, in brief. A bunch of Republicans defecting and taking on Trump could bring him down, but being the one to take him on is risky. We'll see what happens with Corker and with Flake, but the collective action problem prevents more signals from being sent to the base about how dissatisfied congressional Republicans are with Trump, and that is what keeps his numbers from collapsing completely among the base.
But you know what could change that? My second issue with Hopkins's argument-- the institutional power of Congress here. Trump has whined that congressional Republicans aren't protecting him, but in the critical ways, they are. There haven't been any serious congressional investigations or open hearings, and nobody has really used their subpoena power against the Trump Administration. That could change. All that would have to happen is that a committee chair would need to let a vote happen within committee, and let one or two Republicans on the committee cross party lines. The chair wouldn't even have to be the one to cross party lines. The chair could simply stop exercising what we call "negative agenda control," and let the Democrats, plus a handful of Republicans, force open hearings on Russia and Trump's finances. They could demand... Trump's tax returns.
And institutionally, they can permit an impeachment. With enough revelations, and a party divided to the degree that the Republicans were during Watergate, they can allow Democrats to introduce and vote on articles of impeachment. And if congressional Republicans are not sending unified signals of support to the Republican base, as they essentially are now, then by institutional rules, Trump's just fucked. He has no recourse. There is no trick. He can whine. He can even try to demand an uprising. It could get very ugly. But, the fact is that Congress has the institutional power, and the use of that institutional power for investigatory purposes can reveal enough to allow congressional Republicans to reach a point of division similar to Watergate, in which case congressional Republicans "win" by revealing enough information to divide the base. That relatively unified support we see now is a function of elite support, not a constraint on elite support. Sorry, but John Zaller still applies.
Notice, though, that I put "win" in quote marks. Trump is going after McConnell, McCain, and plenty of other congressional Republicans, in very personal ways, and some of them aren't even hitting back. See, for example, McConnell. Why? If congressional Republicans can "beat" Trump in a GOP civil war, then why is Trump fighting while most congressional GOP-ers are demurring?
Because Trump is stupid, and McConnell is smart. Trump is lashing out for personal reasons. He is "losing," he hates losing, and he has to blame other people. That's it. Nothing else. He's incompetent at his job, and he's a whiner. I keep comparing him to Carter, and he is doing his best to make Carter look like FDR in terms of competence.
Why won't McConnell and the rest hit back? The same reason I keep giving you. Watergate had fallout. In 1974, the GOP lost a lot of seats, and then in 1976... Carter. Congressional Republicans are in a bind. They can either try to ride out Trump's Presidency, or take him down, but there is no model in which taking him down doesn't take them down too. The analogy I keep using is that Trump has an electoral bomb strapped to him with a dead-man trigger, and the entire GOP is chained to him. They made a horrendous series of mistakes by not fighting him in the 2016 nomination contest, but now they're fucked because they either have to ride out his Presidency, or accept the electoral losses that come from bringing him down.
How bad would those losses be? It depends on how bad the revelations get. What we know so far is that Trump fired the FBI Director to shut down the investigation into his campaign's Russian connections and Russian interference. That's not just bad-- it's the same thing that forced Nixon's resignation. Add to that Flynn's many problems, Manafort and his Russian/Ukraine stuff, Trump Jr., Sessions discussing campaign strategy with Kislyak after having lied to Congress and said he never even met with any Russians ever, Trump leaking classified intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office... And that's just a tiny slice of what we know so far.
So, consider the following hypothetical: Trump has been insisting over, and over, and over again that he has no business dealings in Russia. If some financial records come out in an investigation that show him tied into some Putin pawn... maybe some massive debt... then a bunch more revelations about contacts between Trump's campaign people and FSB-connected people, and all of this gets tied into the money trail...
How likely is this? We don't know, but the uglier the revelations get, the easier it would be for Republicans to break ranks and allow Democrats to introduce and move on articles of impeachment.
That's why Congress isn't doing a real investigation! That's why Republicans are holding ranks! To avoid 1974 and 1976!
The conflict between Trump and congressional Republicans isn't a conflict in which Trump has more advantages, as Hopkins claims. It is a conflict between a child and parents. The child is throwing a temper tantrum in public. The child is loud, and has a shrill voice. (Hey! "Shrill!" Get it?) Crying children tend to elicit sympathy, and onlookers might worry that the parent has done something wrong, making the parents nervous about disciplining the child in public. The child is particularly problematic, and really needs to be in a special home, but the parents are just trying to get through this shopping trip.
In other words, the conflict is one between an irrational actor lashing out against his own best interests and alienating those whom he needs, and rational actors who could defeat the President, but won't because the backlash would hurt them too.
There is another reference here. The same one I make over, and over, and over again. Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict. The rational actor versus the irrational one. McConnell is rational, and won't punish Trump because doing so would hurt his own party. Trump is irrational, so he's not just threatening to lash out at his own party-- he's actually fucking stupid enough that he's doing it now!
So, no, Trump is not at a strategic advantage in a GOP civil war. He's just stupid enough to try to fight one. If McConnell and Ryan decided to fight, they'd crush him by opening serious congressional investigations that revealed whatever Trump is hiding, allowing congressional GOP-ers to stop signaling unified partisan support, which they essentially are doing now, at which point Trump no longer has that public support that Hopkins's argument relies upon, and we are back to Watergate. Why don't they do it? Watergate.