Columns » Jay Barth

Trump's purge

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As is typical, President Trump has tweeted about any number of subjects in recent days. They ranged from advising former NSA head Michael Flynn that he should seek immunity for testimony related to the Trump/Russia case to personal insults directed toward "Meet the Press" host Chuck "Sleepy Eyes" Todd. Among the most interesting was a flurry related to the inability of House Republicans to provide Trump the votes necessary to push the "repeal and replace" of the Affordable Care Act across the finish line week before last.

In a series of tweets, Trump trashed the Freedom Caucus as a group: "The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!" Trump then picked out individual members — including the chair of the group, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) — for targeted attacks, suggesting that Trump and his supporters would be coming after them in 2018.

The Trump promise of retribution at the ballot box was reminiscent of another president's communications via a different, still relatively young media format that he dominated the way Trump does Twitter. In the first months of his second term in office, Franklin Roosevelt had seen defeat upon defeat for his legislative priorities despite his party's dominance of both houses of Congress. While the most high profile of these losses was his misguided "court-packing" plan in 1937, Roosevelt's New Deal agenda was regularly undermined by conservative — largely Southern — senators and representatives.

In June 1938, Roosevelt went after this group of Democrats in one of his radio "Fireside Chats," a thoughtful analysis of the importance of political parties following through on the promises they had made voters (a bit different than the 140 character wordbombs transmitted by Trump). FDR argued, using typical Rooseveltian phrasings: "You and I all know that progress may be blocked by outspoken reactionaries, but we also know that progress can be blocked by those who say yes to a progressive objective, but who always find some reason to oppose any specific proposal to gain that objective. I call that type of candidate a 'yes, but' fellow."

FDR didn't stop with this lengthy radio address. Instead he invested major time and political capital throughout the remainder of the summer and fall campaigning for the opponents of those Democrats insufficiently loyal to the New Deal. In almost all cases he failed to deny the renominations of these incumbents. The almost total failure of the FDR "purge" marked the real end of the New Deal-era, dramatically weakening Roosevelt as a domestic leader and creating permanent opponents within his party's ranks. It was only the arrival of war that revitalized Roosevelt's presidency, by turning attention wholly to global affairs.

It is yet to be seen if Trump follows these tweeted words with actions. He would be wise to learn from the lesson of FDR and resist that temptation. Much has changed in how American politics has operated across the last eight decades, of course, but the charge that "outsiders" are sticking their nose into the decisions best made by locals in western North Carolina (which Meadows has represented three terms) is one that tends to work well in fending off such attacks in districts where members' personal bonds with primary voters are decidedly deeper than with even the most popular of presidents. And, as an analysis from FiveThirtyEight.com last week points out, while Freedom Caucus members represent overwhelmingly GOP districts, that doesn't mean that they are particularly Trump-friendly districts. Examining results from last spring's Republican primaries, only six of 32 Freedom Caucus members represent districts where Trump received a majority of the vote in the primary; in a number of districts he trailed Ted Cruz badly in primary voting. Moving to the general election, all but five of 32 Freedom Caucus members outperformed Trump in their districts.

All signs are that Donald Trump's GOP is going to have plenty of trouble in the 2018 cycle. He is ill-advised to create more difficulties by trying to carry out a purge that will almost inevitably fail and leave him even more weakened in the second half of his first term.

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