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Donald Trump’s demand for loyalty will make it impossible for him to govern

Why the former president will find it hard to get anything actually done

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Friday 26 January 2024 21:10 GMT
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(Getty Images)

You may remember that on Thursday, we reported that Mitt Romney accused Mitch McConnell of being “ambiguous” in a meeting with Senate Republicans where McConnell spoke about the politics around a deal that would restrict immigration in exchange for aid to Ukraine. Romney — a longtime Trump critic — also suggested that Trump was trying to kill the bill so he could “blame Biden” for a surge of migrants at the US-Mexican border.

Later on Thursday, Trump responded to Romney’s accusations. “He knows nothing about me, or my views,” the former president wrote on Truth Social, and continued in his all-caps style: “we need a Strong, Powerful, and essentially ‘PERFECT’ Border and, unless we get that, we are better off not making a Deal.”

Trump and Romney have one of the most tortured relationships in recent Republican history. Trump endorsed Romney when the latter ran and lost to Barack Obama (that was back when Trump was pushing the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States.) Romney didn’t exactly return the favor; he came out against Trump in 2016. But after Trump won, he and Romney dined together. It was said that the former Massachusetts governor hoped to become secretary of state.

Yet, when Romney won a Senate seat in Utah, he became the first senator to vote to convict a president of their own party in an impeachment trial — and he did so twice with Trump.

Romney can afford to speak out against Trump largely because he will leave the Senate at the end of this year. At the same time, despite only serving one term, he’s one of the most effective negotiators in the Senate. During Trump’s presidency, he negotiated most of the Covid-19 relief packages. He also collaborated with President Joe Biden on infrastructure and Ukraine. He even voted to put Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court.

Despite this, Romney has not pivoted back to his days of being a moderate New England Republican. He’s still very conservative, particularly when it comes to immigration. He is simply a conservative who knows how to govern. But Trump’s demand for loyalty means that many Republicans who do not subscribe to MAGA’s ideology of burning the place to the ground are leaving. In the short term, that might feel like a win to the 45th president. In the long term, it’ll be a loss in terms of what he will actually be able to achieve in government.

Romney’s exit will be just the latest from Republicans who voted to convict Trump for his actions on January 6. Ben Sasse resigned to become president of the University of Florida. Richard Burr of North Carolina retired, as did Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey. The latter two also focused heavily on governing, with Burr leading the Senate Intelligence Committee and Toomey authoring legislation to address gun violence.

The same goes for establishment Republicans like Rob Portman of Ohio and Roy Blunt. They had a cordial relationship with Trump; they didn’t antagonize him but were not MAGA subscribers. Meanwhile, Trump has a habit of endorsing candidates so toxic — such as Mehmet Oz — that a lot of voters can barely stomach them. In Pennsylvania, Oz was so disliked that voters there elected a Democrat.

Now, we have Republicans like JD Vance, Ted Budd and Eric Schmitt, men with little distinction save for support for Trump and a desire to obstruct. Even freshmen of the old mold like Alabama’s Katie Britt, a former chief of staff for her predecessor who is friends with John Fetterman, only got to the Senate because Trump retracted his endorsement of her opponent. Despite her congeniality, she felt compelled to endorse Trump.

Trump is making a habit of forcing many otherwise vulnerable Republicans to support him. Both of Texas’s Republican Senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have endorsed him even though Trump won Texas by only single digits, a pittance for a Republican. As the suburbs of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio become bluer, being tied to Trump could be a drag.

Things are little better on the House side. As anyone who has followed the Mojo Dojo Casa House of Representatives knows, Republicans can almost never pass any legislation due to infighting and thin margins.

Part of this is because hardliners often put Republicans from the 17 districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020 in a tough spot (dearly departed George Santos’s old seat is almost guaranteed to go to a Democrat next month).

But two Republicans so far from Biden districts have gotten behind Trump in the past week: New Yorkers Brandon Williams and Nick LaLota. Democrats could easily flip most Biden-district seats in solidly Democratic New York and California, especially if they tar those swing-district Republicans with the Trump brand.

This could cause the House to easily flip to the Democrats even if Trump wins the presidency.

In the same respect, Trump is already getting involved in Senate primaries, the same way he did in 2022. Lest we forget, 2022 wasn’t great for Republicans. The former president’s involvement could make it all the harder for the GOP to flip the required two seats they need to win the majority back.

All of this together would make it nearly impossible for Trump to do anything he wants in government. Similarly, his desire for absolute loyalty means that he will likely weed out anyone who has some semblance of knowledge of how the federal government works from joining his administration if he whiffs even the slightest bit of past criticism.

Ironically, by Trump populating the GOP with ideologues with little interest in governing, he won’t be able to achieve his policy goals. Indeed, he’s been hellbent on trying to torpedo the Ukraine-immigration deal that would give him sweeping authority to restrict migration into the United States and conduct deportations that he never could back in his first term.

But his own ego would prevent him from enacting the MAGA agenda now. He might wind up rueing the fact he won’t have Mitt Romney to kick around anymore.

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