The news that Donald Trump may have struck a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, exchanging the passage of the DREAM Act for some spending on border security without including “the wall” has some arguing that Trump is flirting with disaster.
The thinking is that his base is so tied to the idea of the border wall – it was the centerpiece of his campaign, after all – that betraying this will lead to disaster.
This could be right, but I think it’s wrong. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last year, it is this: Traditional political calculations do not really work with Trump.
Trump won the Republican nomination by pandering to the fears and bigotry conservatives have whipped their base into a frenzy over for years via Fox News and right-wing radio. But that politically smart calculation also showed that Trump doesn’t really care about any of those things. Yammering on about the border, like pushing birther conspiracies, or bashing Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, is a means to an end.
The primaries clearly showed that he accomplished this goal. It did not matter to Republican primary voters that Trump has been all over the map ideologically. It didn’t matter to them that figures like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush have been more consistently conservative than Trump has.
They like Trump more than they like conservatism and they are more than willing to back him over conservative purity.
As previously described, this is a cult. Like with the followers Jim Jones or Charles Manson or L. Ron Hubbard, consistency doesn’t matter. What matters is what the leader says and no matter how ludicrous his justifications for his behavior are, the majority of the followers will accept his word as gospel, because he is the deity.
If Trump tells his followers that he “won” his deal with Pelosi and Schumer, and never mind because he’s still going to build that wall, I suspect the vast majority of them will fall in line. The true conservatives like Steve King and Laura Ingraham who have thrown their lot in with Trump may stamp their feet, but I don’t believe most of his base – something like 25-30 percent of voters at this point – will give a damn. If it’s a “win” for Trump, they like it.
Democrats can hasten this along by continuing to attack Trump on the wall. Like a wrestling “feud,” Trump fans like to cheer on their hero’s battle against the dastardly villain. Democrats genuinely think the wall is stupid and counterproductive, so continuing to bash it is honest and legitimate, while it virtue signals to Trump supporters that the Democrats are “still” mad at him, so how much could they have really snookered him on DACA?
Trump wants to be liked far more than he cares about the Republican agenda. He has pushed that conservative agenda since inheriting the presidency, but if he figures that he can perhaps get something positive by working with “Chuck and Nancy,” he’s going to do that rather than hang out with “Paul and Mitch.”
Trump is more popular with base Republican voters than their congressional leaders are, and should a package come up for a vote that Trump supports, I suspect the inclination among Congressional Republicans will be to vote for the deal. Figures like Sen. Jeff Flake, who have tepidly pushed back against Trump, are being slammed for their disloyalty. Why would a Republican congressman stick his neck out on the chopping block for Paul Ryan? Even if it isn’t a majority of Republicans (though I think it would be), there would be enough votes combined with the Democrats to get such a deal through.
All Trump has to tell his supporters is: “I need votes for this deal, and we’re on our way to securing the border. I’m still fighting hard against the Democrats for our beautiful wall. Also, something about Crooked Hillary.”
That will be enough for them. The dear leader has spoken, and that’s far more important to them than the conservative principles they already showed us they don’t care about in the primaries.
Trump will get what he wants: Positive press, a loyal base, and (he thinks) a bit of a pause in people hating him and being disgusted by him. He hasn’t shown any sign that he understands how this works in the long term. He’s always been about the temporary boost that works in the world of reality TV and New York City tabloids, where you do some PR and the sins of the past are memory-holed in favor of this week’s version of reality.
He doesn’t get that moderates and liberals stand on some principles and that his presidency has trampled on them, and he can’t woo any of those people to his side. He’s not wired that way, and so far, it seems that Pelosi and Schumer understand this and will work his ego enough to get a few important concessions out of him.
The only ones left out in the cold in this calculation are conservatives. Trump cares about his fans, not them, and Democrats definitely don’t care about conservative concerns. It would be a perfect storm.