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Congressional Republicans can challenge Trump without fear — if they want to

A historically unpopular president can’t inspire primary challenges to keep them in line.

Trump pointing to his own head in front of an American flag. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As a new round of public opinion polls about the Trump transition rolled in during Inauguration week, showing approval ratings ranging from the low 30s to 40 percent, opinion among political analysts divided sharply. Some, such as Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein, see Trump’s unprecedented disapproval levels as the defining fact of his presidency. Others fell back on the all-purpose explanation, “Trump broke all the rules already and got away with it, so nothing matters.”

I belong to the first camp — being wildly unpopular on Inauguration Day, with the likelihood of further erosion when actual decisions are being made, matters. It has to. But I also agree with Julian Zelizer of Princeton, who pointed out at CNN that Trump may not care about his approval ratings because, like a professional wrestler, unpopularity and constant conflict is part of his brand.

For Trump, and for his core adherents, the more isolated he is from what they call political correctness, from the mass of elite as well as broad public opinion, and from the broader cultural trend toward inclusion, the better he’s doing. This is the view expressed by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway when she complains that “everyone is gunning for us.”

That message appeals to a very small core — probably the people who attended Trump rallies and came to DC to make up the sparse Inauguration crowds, and Trump himself. He may not be bothered by his broad disapproval — although his tweets declaring the polls “rigged” suggest otherwise — but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. There are certain things that unpopular presidents are unable to do — for example, they can’t help vulnerable members of Congress, promising to campaign for them if they support him on key legislative votes. An unpopular Trump might have less ability to bully corporations into putting out press releases crediting him with new jobs. And ultimately, an unpopular president will have much more difficulty asking for national sacrifice, unless the reasons are compelling, than one whose power is backed by broad consensus.

The specific argument, though, is that Trump’s unpopularity won’t really matter until it matters to a large number of elected Republicans in the House and Senate, and until it matters enough for them to consider impeaching Trump or defying him on key proposals and nominations. Even a deeply unpopular Trump will still be popular with Republican voters; the CBS poll that found Trump’s approval at 32 percent on Wednesday also found that Republicans gave him a 68 percent approval rating — very low by historic standards but enough to keep most Republican senators and members of Congress in line.

And why wouldn’t Republicans defy Trump, even in the face of policies they disagree with (tariffs, for example) or egregious breaches of ethical and constitutional norms? The answer, as political analyst Bill Schneider put it recently, is simple: “His supporters can threaten any Republican in Congress who opposes or even criticizes the President with a serious primary challenge.”

This is the broad consensus among political scientists and journalists, especially those who witnessed the wave of Tea Party primary challenges that ended the careers of Rep. Mike Castle in 2010 and Sen. Richard Lugar in 2012. (Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah also lost renomination in 2012, but that defeat came at a party convention, rather than in a primary.)

It’s true that many Republican politicians in heavily Republican districts or states have more reason to fear a primary than defeat by a Democrat in the general election. But realistically, they have no reason to fear either one. The Tea Party challenges were an extremely unusual phenomenon, and the Republican Party has brought those internal divisions, charged by intense reaction to the recession, to Obama’s policies, and to the very presence of an African-American Democrat in the White House, under control. Although Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi had a close call in 2014, no Republican incumbent has lost a primary since.

And there are even fewer successful primary challenges in the House. The most notable was Rep. Bob Inglis’s loss in 2010, in a very conservative South Carolina district. But in almost all cases, competitive House primaries involving incumbents, of either party, come about as a result of redistricting (two incumbents put in the same district, or an incumbent running in a new, unfamiliar district) or scandal. One of the very few exceptions in 2016 was Rep. Tim Huelskamp’s loss in Kansas, but the far-right Huelskamp lost to a more moderate Republican.

Nor were there any primary challenges in 2016 based on loyalty to Trump or Trump’s message. Probably the only contest in which Trump played a role was in North Carolina’s new Second District, in which incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers was endorsed by Trump but got only 23 percent of the vote.

Another problem for would-be Trumpian primary challengers: It may be difficult to define what the challenge would be about, in any coherent way, other than personal loyalty to Trump. Especially in the Republican primaries, but again in his inaugural speech, Trump presented himself not as a right-wing ideologue but as a sort of super-competent technocrat, defining a few big problems (“We’re always losing”) and pledging to fix them (“I alone…”).

Even while he professes to hate the Affordable Care Act as much as Paul Ryan does, he doesn’t treat it as a station along the road to serfdom, constraining human potential in the yoke of government rules, but simply as a mess that he will fix with better health plans for everyone. The Tea Party challenges rested on an ideology: resistance to Obamacare, immigration, and social programs. It’s difficult to muster such clarity and intensity in defense of a sitting president and a vague mess of policies.

Some Republicans may worry that Trump is more popular with their constituents than they are, and it’s true that as despised as Trump is, congressional Republicans rate even worse, even among people who reliably vote for them. But most did better in their districts than Trump did, and it’s clear that Trump has lost ground from his Election Day peak.

Congressional Republicans may or may not stand up to President Trump. But if they choose to let him get away with his conflicts of interests, authoritarian moves, or destructive foreign policy, it will be entirely their own decision, not something forced on them by their constituents.