With the Mueller report in his rearview mirror, President Donald J. Trump boldly told the press recently, “I am breaking down the swamp.”
Trump can now turn his full attention to his policy agenda and the 2020 elections. His most consequential hindrance in Washington in this regard won’t be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, nor Democrat House committee chairs Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. Compared to the sophisticated Deep State attempt to take down the Trump presidency, Democrats in Congress will appear to Trump and his revved-up supporters as little more than a clown car show.
The next serious challenge Trump faces will be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP swamp that he leads.
True, McConnell is Trump’s erstwhile ally in appointing conservative judges. But he is very much threatened by Trump’s agenda of disruption. McConnell knows he is now the most serious and sophisticated political tactician who can protect the Chamber of Commerce, K Street-based benefits and emoluments that establishment Republicans have developed for decades.
In key ways, we’ve been here before, from Barry Goldwater versus Nelson Rockefeller, to Gerald Ford versus Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush versus Reagan to Mitt Romney versus Newt Gingrich. These two warring factions of the GOP still exist, with one side defending often corrupt institutions and the other side defending freedom.
But those prior battles involved conservatives who at least rose through the political ranks, and whose speech did not rankle the outwardly genteel GOP establishment quite the way Trump’s bluntness does. Also, the post-Mueller report counter-investigations pose a threat to even Republicans who may have acted in concert with foreign agents, so the stakes are higher.
Just as Richard Nixon surprised conservatives by moving to the left, so too has Trump surprised us by moving to the right and governing against the status quo. Historically, the proper role of American conservatism has been to challenge the existing order while expanding freedom. Benjamin Rush wrote Thomas Paine at the end of war for American Independence, “The war is over but the revolution goes on.”
Since 2015 Trump has overcome suspicions of the conservative movement -- and we two are perfect examples of his once-adamant doubters, but now converts. We thought that he was an opportunist and a dealmaker who would not govern as a conservative. Many of us thought he would bring the Republican Party to the left of even GOP establishment leaders like McConnell.
Instead, Donald Trump is not only the true leader of the GOP and by far the most significant political force in America today, but he is also the most proactive conservative president in our collective experience, with perhaps the exception of the iconic Ronald Reagan. Establishment Republicans like McConnell are risk-averse and prefer to avoid public fights with Democrats and the media.
Trump’s braggadocio, confrontational style that was once a turn-off to many movement conservatives like us is now seen as the perfect counter-tactic to softer but less ingenuous tones of the big-government GOP establishment.
Trump is by nature a disruptor of institutionalized slough and stale formalities that impede success, yet he is seen by grassroots conservatives as fiercely loyal to our American institutions themselves. We yearned for a fighter against the Washington establishment. He has won other significant converts such as Senators Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.
It isn’t just lifelong conservatives whom Trump has impressed. Many Jews, Hispanics, and black Americans are beginning to walk away from the Democrat Party, something Trump’s agenda, vision and success could foster while the GOP Swamp remains seen as part of the problem.
In his first two years in office, especially with the cloud of the Mueller investigation hanging over his head, Trump needed to play political footsie with McConnell and the GOP establishment, which did result in the appointment of conservative judges. But that also resulted in major disappointments such as the failure to fund the southern border wall, overturn ObamaCare, defund Planned Parenthood, and the slow-walking of other appointments to fill his administration.
The progressive wing of the GOP, active for over a century now, has been at odds with the modern conservative movement since our beginnings in the 1950s. We have had warriors, and count Ronald Reagan among the movement’s disruptors of big government slough, but Donald Trump is by far the fiercest. His braggadocio, confrontational style that was once a turn-off to many movement conservatives like us is now seen as the perfect counter-tactic to softer but less ingenuous tones of the big-government GOP establishment.
Senator McConnell’s latest volley in this battle for the soul of the Republican Party was to tell Republican Senators to run independent of Trump in 2020 and, despite growing conservative alarm about the federal government’s vast deficit, to base their campaigns on what they’ve done to bring home the bacon for their states, rather than their support for Trump’s conservative-populist agenda.
McConnell’s primary post-Mueller report role in stopping Trump’s agenda will be opposing or slow-walking conservative nominees for key posts in the Trump administration. Good potential nominations, such as former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for Homeland Security Secretary, are being shot down by McConnell, not because the nominees are not good, but because they agree with the president who nominated them.
McConnell rarely fought Barack Obama seriously on any of his major policy initiatives. Indeed, in the lead-up to the 2016 Republican National Convention, Senator McConnell said it was much more likely that the Republican establishment he represented would change Donald Trump, rather than see the GOP embrace the policies that Trump espoused.
The basis for McConnell’s perfidy has deep historical roots in the Republican Party. We saw this war recounted in Ronald Reagan’s diaries as he documented how Republican leaders would troop down to the White House to lobby against the very Reagan policies that had won the Gipper the White House: lowering taxes, cutting ineffective federal government programs, rebuilding the military and standing up to the Soviet Union and Communist expansionism. Indeed, Reagan’s declaration, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” was seen by many establishment Republicans as too confrontational.
This very same battle is playing out between Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump and the battle is only going to intensify.
Today, with a solid Republican majority in the Senate, at least 247 Trump administration nominations remain stuck in the Senate – only 64 percent of President Trump’s nominees have been confirmed, in contrast to the over 80 percent that had been confirmed at this point in their terms for the two Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama.
When Donald Trump surprised the world by winning the 2016 election, the establishment was not going to let go of power without a fight. What’s worse is that they failed to learn anything from the sweeping loss of the House of Representatives in 2018. McConnell and his weak-kneed colleagues are again failing to understand the mood of the American people. They want a fighter for the policies he promised to deliver. Those not wearing their MAGA hats and stand in the way of those promises are likely to come out on the wrong side of this fight.
Craig Shirley is a presidential historian, Reagan biographer, bestselling author and Chairman of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, a strategic political advocacy firm.