After the 2012 election, political pundits wasted no time arguing that the Republican party had a “demographic” problem. It had trouble competing in national elections, and this would only get worse as traditionally Democratic voting blocs grew, and Republican ones shrank. Today, Donald Trump is President and Republicans hold majorities in Congress. But even this masks the true extent of Republican power in political life. Republicans hold striking majorities in most state governments (32). Most state governors (33) are Republicans. There are an unprecedented number of vacancies (over 100) in the Federal court system, leaving the Judicial branch wide open to Republican appointments. At the start of Trump’s term, there were over 6,000 positions in executive agencies waiting to be filled with Republican loyalists. Trump himself is right to point out that his candidacy – and the wave of Republican success that has coincided with it – is an astounding comeback.
The thesis of this article is that this power (at all levels of government) creates a simple problem that must be remedied if Republicans are to stay in office. Unified control of government means the consequences of policies can be traced to Republicans. Much of the coming agenda (healthcare, immigration, the national debt, infrastructure, tax reform, etc.) presents “lose-lose” scenarios: keeping campaign promises will mean making difficult (and sometimes, zero-sum) decisions – hurting some crucial bloc of voters. So, as politicians who want to remain in office, their best move is to make these consequences more difficult to trace. They are in desperate search of enemies.
As the numbers above suggest, it is not far off to say that Republicans control American government. The policies enacted in the next two years – as well as their short-term consequences – are traceable. Bills that become law will be the result of compromise among Republicans. Presidential directives will bear the signature of a Republican. There will be Republican signing ceremonies with politicians applauding their achievements while posing for photographs.
The fanfare of those moments could not be more different than what comes next. As a man who has been studying this much longer than me likes to say: governing is hard. The administration will have to see to the details of the policy. The policy itself, as I indicate above, will likely hurt some people – even if properly executed. And even under the best circumstances, there is no guarantee the policy will work. In other words, governing is risky.
This problem creates a demand for enemies. Politicians deal in credit and blame. Signing ceremonies help them claim credit. Enemies help them shift the blame. Negative consequences like the ones above are particularly problematic for a party in such thorough control of government as Republicans are now – since most voters can identify an incumbent. That means that as the rather mundane consequences of governing come, the party needs enemies.
This is already happening. By many accounts, President Trump is having trouble managing the executive branch bureaucracy. Leaks provide daily fodder for negative news. Thousands of appointed positions are vacant. Distrust has led officials to destroy records. President Trump has repeatedly blamed Mr. Obama for leaving leftover appointees in place, as well as Democrats for failing to confirm his nominees. But it would probably surprise Mr. Obama and Democrats to learn of their success, since the overwhelming majority of political appointees do not require confirmation -and of those that do, Democrats have only succeeded in defeating one (Andrew Pudzer, who withdrew after it was revealed his wife had appeared on Oprah to discuss his domestic abuse). The ones that remain to be confirmed have been delayed either because Republicans have yet to schedule hearings, or because they failed to fill out required financial disclosures on time. But these facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things. At best, they reveal the messiness of governing – at worst, they reveal the incompetence of an administration unprepared to take office. Enemies help obscure that.
The pool of available enemies will be familiar to you. To name a few common ones: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, protestors, and the Media. They aren’t invented. Barack Obama was president for 8 years, and oversaw policies that Republican voters oppose. Republicans have disliked Hillary Clinton since watching her flippant remarks about homemakers in the 1990s. Protestors are a general affront to conservatism, which values order and incremental change. News organizations – despite their best efforts – will always exhibit some bias (ideological or otherwise).
But all of these enemies have something in common: they have been defeated. Barack Obama is out of office. Hillary Clinton lost (several times). Protestors are fickle and rarely force real policy change. News organizations are adrift in a media landscape overrun with alternative sources of information (many now with a seat in the White House briefing room) and social media algorithms that shut out opposing viewpoints. Put simply, none of these enemies can pose a serious challenge to a party with unified control of government. But that does not mean they aren’t still in demand, and it is all the better that they are relatively powerless.
Holding politicians accountable means placing blame where blame is due. Republicans are in power. Their enemies exist, but they cannot pose a serious challenge if Republicans want to do something. This means that it was not Hillary Clinton who caused President Trump to sign a botched executive order on immigration. It is not the Media who forced intelligence officials to leak classified information. It is not Barack Obama who failed to coat the executive branch with Trump loyalists, or who ordered a failed raid in Yemen over dinner. It will not be Democrats who fail to repeal and replace Obamacare, build a border wall, reform the tax code, or fund infrastructure projects – all while adding nothing to the national debt. Right now, there are only two true Republican enemies: incompetence, and other Republicans. The rest are props.