Why the Trump brand may be stronger than the GOP

Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.

President Trump’s base among Republican voters is showing its first signs of erosion, according to opinion polls. His overall numbers are also at an historic low for a new president.

But what happens if Trump goes into total disruption mode and invites a government shutdown? Recent shutdowns have upset voters and damaged the Republican brand.

Now the question is whether the Trump brand is stronger than the GOP brand?

Even after the violence in Charlottesville, Trump can still look at polls and see that he is far more popular than any other Republican.

At the moment, more than three-quarters of Republicans remain Trump fans.

Even after the violence in Charlottesville, Va. — and the president’s failure to immediately damn the racist and anti-Jewish marchers — Trump can still look at polls and see that he is far more popular than any other Republican.

Trump is betting he can leverage his populist appeal among the rank-and-file to blame the GOP majority in Congress for forcing him to shut the government.

“Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” the president told his supporters at a rally in Phoenix last week, as anti-wall, pro-immigrant protesters picketed the venue.

Later, he specifically targeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for failing to do his bidding. They should have raised the debt ceiling as part of a recent Veterans benefits bill, as he “requested,” Trump tweeted.

“Could have been so easy – now a mess,” was the president’s damning conclusion.

“Trump Divorces the GOP Congress,” was the headline on an editorial in the Wall Street Journal last Friday.

“They physical wall is Mr. Trump’s personal preoccupation,” the Journal’s conservative editorial page editors wrote. “He can veto a bill without it but then he’d be responsible for the shutdown.”

Trump appears happy to do just that.

He can tell his supporters that enough-is-enough with do-nothing Republicans and obstruction from Democrats. He can portray himself as a hero, daring to take the risk of a shutdown to “drain the swamp.”

But how will that heroic image hold up if federal workers are told to stay home and benefit checks don’t go out?

The president’s men are trying to stop him from playing Russian roulette with a government shutdown — especially if it is being done to build a wall.

Polls show a large, clear majority of Americans oppose building the wall. Most Americans also oppose shutting down the government.

But the odds of a shutdown are increasing.

"Presidential approval continues to decline, and is the lowest for any first-term president in his first year in office," top Goldman Sachs economist Alec Phillips wrote in a memo to clients earlier this month. "Low approval ratings raise legislative risks. In the near term, we believe there is a 50% chance of a brief government shutdown, as the president seeks to solidify support among his base by embracing more controversial positions."

The president’s team is not as confident as Trump that any good will come of a shutdown.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman executive, appeared alongside McConnell last week and gave little attention to the president’s call for a wall. Instead, he assured Republicans there would be no government shutdown brought on by a failure to raise the debt ceiling.

“We’re going to get the debt ceiling passed,” Mnuchin predicted confidently. “Everybody understands, this is not a Republican issue, this is not a Democrat issue. We need to be able to pay our debts.”

McConnell agreed: “America is not going to default, and we’ll get the job done in conjunction with the secretary of the Treasury,” he said.

Ryan shares McConnell’s view: “I don’t think a government shutdown is necessary, and I don’t think most people want to see a government shutdown, ourselves included,” he said at a news conference in Oregon last week.

That leaves open the question of whether Republican voters agree.

Already some House Republicans seem reluctant to push back against Trump.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) is predicting that as part of a debt ceiling resolution, Congress will “find at least a billion or so dollars to make sure that we start the wall.”

Meanwhile, Democrats see political gold in a bloody intramural GOP fight over the debt ceiling this fall.

“Democrats have made clear we will not support funding for President Trump’s misguided, ineffective border wall,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, told The Hill last week. “If President Trump and Republicans insist on wasting taxpayers’ money, they will be to blame for any government shutdown.”

For all his bravado, Trump knows he has not delivered the “winning” that he promised his base. That is why he held the Phoenix rally so quickly after Charlottesville. The latest polls show Trump losing swing votes in key states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

So, now we find out if Republican voters will abandon Congressional Republicans in order to stand by a man who sees himself as bigger than the GOP: Trump.

Let the fall games begin.

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel's (FNC) "The Five" (weekdays, 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on "FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace" and "Special Report with Bret Baier."