Trump allies focus anger on another target: GOP leaders
Faced with the demoralizing prospect of a third consecutive loss in a presidential race, conservative Republicans are girding for an extended clash on two fronts in the months ahead: one with a Hillary Clinton administration that could look like a reprise of the partisan battles of the 1990s, and another with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who rejected Donald Trump.
Though a victory by Clinton is far from a foregone conclusion, what does seem clear is that the frustrations and anxieties that fueled Trump’s rise will not be fleeting. And a defeat of Trump — which he has already darkly alluded to as part of a plot to disenfranchise his supporters — could further inflame those on the right whose goal all along has been to disrupt the country’s political system.
Some of the loudest voices on the right seem poised to channel that anger into one of their favorite and most frequent pursuits: eating their own.
Some in the deeply factionalized Republican Party, including Trump and some of his senior aides, are already fanning the flames for a revolt against the House speaker, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, once Congress reconvenes after the election. Trump, who has lashed out at the speaker for being critical of him, has privately said that Ryan should pay a price for his disloyalty, according to two people close to Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal campaign discussions.
Trump's role: Trump made his frustrations plain on Tuesday. “The people are very angry with the leadership of this party, because this is an election that we will win, 100 percent, if we had support from the top,” he said in an interview with Reuters. (He hastened to add: “I think we’re going to win it anyway.”)
Trump’s role in a post-election Republican Party is far from clear. Though some of his senior advisers have discussed the possibility that he would continue to be a vocal and visible antagonist to Clinton — much as Sarah Palin was to President Barack Obama — it is unclear that he would have any interest in doing so.
Trump’s campaign chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, the provocative chairman of Breitbart News, made Ryan a frequent target of its coverage while he ran the website and is said to be particularly intent on forcing Ryan out. And Bannon, who declined to be interviewed for this article, would be able to pick up at Breitbart where he left off: as a persistent irritant to the Republican establishment.
Supporters: In interviews, Trump’s supporters said they were determined to harness the anti-establishment energy that Trump had catalyzed and to refocus it on the Republican leadership in Congress — a target many of them seem just as eager to take down as they are to bring down Clinton.
“There’s a huge chunk of people who want to see a fight taken to D.C.,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which has pressed Ryan on several issues since he became speaker last year. Brat said many conservatives remained perplexed as to why Ryan and Republican leaders would choose to criticize Trump rather than focus their energy on Clinton.
“Leadership comes and smacks our guy?” Brat said. “That’s where you’re going to put down a marker? Really? And the American people are just scratching their head saying, ‘Really? That’s rich.'”
Brat’s advice for Ryan: “He’d better pivot. He’d better pivot hard.”
Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, another Freedom Caucus member, warned Republican leaders to proceed cautiously on the issues most central to Trump’s candidacy: trade and immigration.
“You can’t ignore what millions and millions of people have expressed in this election cycle,” Davidson said.
A spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, reiterated his plans to focus his efforts on House races, and not on the presidential campaign. “Speaker Ryan is fighting to ensure we hold a strong majority next Congress, and he is always working to earn the respect and support of his colleagues,” Strong said.
Right-leaning media: Waiting to assume the role of the dogged opposition are right-leaning news media and political entities that thrive on and profit from challenging Republican leaders.
There is Breitbart, which over the weekend ran a 3,000-word article, headlined “He’s With Her,” excoriating Ryan as complicit in an increasingly likely Clinton victory.
There is Citizens United, the group that Trump’s deputy campaign manager, David N. Bossie, ran until August. A tenacious critic of Clinton’s that has aggressively pursued the release of her private emails, Citizens United was one of several well-funded groups that put pressure on former Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio to resign as speaker. It has cautioned Ryan not to follow in Boehner’s footsteps in cutting deals considered anathema to the Republican base.
And there is Roger Stone, a political provocateur and longtime adviser to Trump who has worked to pressure the Republican establishment for years.
Also seeking greater influence are policy-minded groups like Heritage Action for America and FreedomWorks, which push Republican lawmakers to adopt a more fiscally conservative, small-government approach. In recent days, leaders of both groups have joined other conservatives in calling for the House to delay a vote on picking a candidate to be the next speaker, which usually takes place right after the November elections.
“If the party doesn’t learn lessons and change based on what’s gone on for the last year and a half, I think it’s going to be just catastrophe,” said Michael Needham, the chief executive of Heritage Action.
Still, Ryan has a bulwark of support, even among members whose districts are rife with Trump supporters. Rep. Peter T. King of New York said he did not think Ryan’s opponents had the votes to block his re-election. But he added that they could make life miserable for Ryan if Republicans lose enough seats to leave them with a very thin majority.
“I think you’d find a real backlash, and a real reaction to that, I’d say, from a solid majority of the Republican conference,” King said of efforts to remove Ryan. “You can’t take people who are going to use their veto power and put them in charge.”
Newt Gingrich, a former speaker who has advised Trump throughout the campaign, also warned that damaging Ryan would be much more difficult than it might seem from afar.
“I think it is a dead end, and I would not advise any of my friends to waste a lot of energy on it,” he said.
Few are as eager to challenge their own party as Bannon, a former naval officer who is given to saying that the Marquess of Queensberry rules, the 19th-century code of conduct for fisticuffs, do not apply to politics.
Bannon will leave the Trump campaign having blended its brand of populism with Breitbart’s, while stirring up millions of voters who might not have visited the website before — giving him an outlet that could become even more powerful in his battles against the Republican Party.
Gingrich agreed that the divisions the election has exposed were not likely to heal quickly, especially on Capitol Hill.
“Read ‘The Jungle Book,'” he said. “The oldest wolf is ultimately defeated as leader — great lesson for young politicians.”