President-elect Donald Trump’s victory tour was more than just an opportunity to strut and preen around the country like a peacock with a comb-over. It was a warning to Republican leaders in Congress that Trump intends to be in charge – and that there will be consequences if the party establishment does not fall in line.
The post-election rallies also served as venues for Trump to make grandiose promises, including some that will stick in his party’s craw.
Trump billed the series of campaign-style events as a way to thank the voters who elected him. It seems obvious that he is addicted to adulation, basks in the grandeur of his own celebrity and chafes at the prosaic labor of assembling an administration. This is a man who cannot be bothered to hear a daily intelligence briefing about threats to the nation, yet finds time to meet with Kanye West.
At the victory rallies, Trump continued his withering onslaught against the truth; he claimed, for example, to have won in a historic landslide, though Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more votes. He renewed his attack against the news media, pointing at reporters and calling them “very dishonest people.” He offered a “thank you to the African-American community” who “didn’t come out to vote” for Clinton.
Amid all the bombast and nonsense, however, there was a clear message for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.: The next president expects them to follow, not lead.
Trump held the rallies in two solidly Republican states (Louisiana and Alabama), four traditional swing states (Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa and Florida) and three states he unexpectedly took from the Democrats (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan). He reveled in illustrating the fact that his electoral coalition was unique – and that his supporters were more loyal to him personally than to the party he conquered in a hostile takeover.
In Ryan’s home state, the crowd booed when Trump mentioned the House speaker’s name. Trump protested, saying he has come to “appreciate” Ryan and comparing him to “a fine wine” that improves with time. But then, with a smile, he added: “Now, if he ever goes against me, I’m not going to say that, OK?”
During the campaign, Ryan was sharply critical of Trump before reluctantly falling in line. He attended the Dec. 8 rally – and got something of a dressing-down for having suggested, in a “60 Minutes” interview a few days earlier, that the border wall Trump promises to build might actually be a mere fence in some places.
“We’re going to work on the wall, Paul,” Trump said, turning to Ryan. “We’re going to build the wall, OK? Believe me.”
There are Republicans in Congress who believe Trump is so naive in the ways of Washington that he can be led around by the nose – that he will basically sign whatever the GOP majorities in the House and Senate choose to pass. Many of those who share this view also were confident that Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would be the party’s nominee. Do they really expect Trump to suddenly be transformed into an orthodox Republican? I don’t.
Trump promised the ridiculous border wall, and I believe he will expect Congress to let him build it. He also promised punishment, such as targeted tariffs, for companies that move jobs overseas. He promised a trillion-dollar program to improve the nation’s infrastructure. He promised massive, budget-busting tax cuts for corporations, the wealthy and the middle class. He promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act but also to simultaneously replace it, vowing that those with pre-existing conditions will still be able to get health insurance.
In foreign policy, Trump pledges even more radical departures from the Republican establishment. He has been vocal in his desire for a closer, more cooperative relationship with Russia – one reason, perhaps, why Russian President Vladimir Putin had his intelligence agents work so hard to get Trump elected, according to the CIA and the FBI. For secretary of state, Trump has chosen Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, a man on whom Putin has bestowed the Russian Order of Friendship.
Trump promised during his victory tour to establish safe zones for civilians in Syria, which presumably would require working with Putin, who supports the continued rule of barbarous dictator Bashar Assad. Are you ready for that, Republicans? Have you seen the pictures from Aleppo?
The GOP establishment is soon going to have to choose between principle and political well-being. The latter almost always wins.
Contact Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.