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Why Republican Politicians Do Whatever Trump Says

The story Donald Trump tells about himself (and with himself) has always been one of domination. He runs through the canonical texts of his personal mythology. In The art of the deal, filled page after page with examples of his harsh negotiation tactics. In The newbie, dominated a boardroom full of supplicants vying for his approval. And at his campaign rallies, she routinely regales crowds with stories of how he lobbied various world leaders in the Oval Office.

This image of Trump has always been dubious. Those boardroom scenes were, after all, reality TV fabrications; Those stories in his book were, by his own ghostwriter’s account, exaggerated in many cases to make Trump seem smarter than he was. And there have been abundant reports suggesting that many of the world leaders Trump interacted with when he was president viewed him more as an easily manipulated victim than a dominant statesman to be feared.

The truth is that Trump, for all his tough-guy posturing, spent most of his career failing to pressure people and bend them to his will.

That is, until he started dealing with Republican politicians.

For nearly a decade now, Trump has demonstrated a remarkable ability to get congressional Republicans to do what he wants. He threatens them. He intimidates them. He extracts theatrical displays of devotion from them and, if they cross him, he makes them pay. If there is one area of ​​American power in which Trump has truly been the ruthless alpha he portrayed on television (and there may, in fact, only be one), it is Republican politics. His influence was on full display this week, when he derailed a bipartisan border security bill, supposedly because he wants to campaign on this year’s immigration “crisis.”

Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg has observed this dynamic with some amusement. “It’s funny,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “In the business world and in the entertainment world, I don’t think Donald would be able to intimidate people that much.”

He pointed to Trump’s salary negotiations with NBC during Trump’s presidency. Apprentice years. Jeff Zucker, who ran the network at the time, said Trump once came to him to demand a raise. At the time, Trump was earning $40,000 per episode, but he wanted to earn as much as the entire cast of Friends combined: $6 million per episode. Zucker responded with $60,000. When Trump objected, Zucker said he would find someone else to host the show. The next day, according to Zucker, Trump’s lawyer called to accept the $60,000. (A Trump campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

Compare that to the power Trump wields on Capitol Hill: how he can kill a bill or derail a presidential bid with a single social media post; how high-ranking congressmen are so desperate for approval that they’ll task staff with sifting through packages of Starbursts and choosing only the pink and red ones so Trump can be presented with his favorite flavors.

“I just remember that there were a lot of things that didn’t go the way he wanted,” Nunberg told me, referring to Trump’s business career. “But he has all these senators in the fetal position! They do what he wants.”

Why exactly congressional Republicans have proven so much more docile than anyone else Trump has faced is a matter of interpretation. One explanation is that Trump has simply achieved much more success in politics than he ever did, relatively speaking, in New York City real estate or on network television. For all his tabloid omnipresence, Trump never had anything resembling the presidential pulpit.

“It stands to reason that (when) the president and the leader of his party are pushing for something… that’s what’s going to happen,” a former chief of staff told a Republican senator, who requested anonymity to candidly describe the thoughts of his former colleagues. , he told me. “Taking him out of the office and putting him back in a business environment, where facts and fundamental principles matter, I’m not surprised it wasn’t that easy.”

But of course, Trump is no longer president, and there is also something unique about the influence he continues to have over Republicans on Capitol Hill. In his former life, Trump had viewers, readers and admirers, but he never led a movement that could end the careers of the people on the other side of the negotiating table.

And Trump – whose animalistic instinct for weakness is one of his defining traits – seemed to sense something from the beginning about the psychology of the Republicans over whom he would one day reign.

Nunberg told me about a speech she wrote for Trump in 2015 that included this line about the Republican establishment: “They’re good at keeping their jobs, not their promises.” When Trump read it, he chuckled. “It’s very true,” he said, according to Nunberg. “That’s all they care about.” (Nunberg was eventually fired from the Trump campaign in 2016.)

This spirit of preserving jobs at all costs is not a strictly partisan phenomenon in Washington, nor is it new. As I reported in my recent biography of Mitt Romney, the Utah senator was surprised, when he arrived in Congress, by the enormous psychic importance that his colleagues placed on his positions. One senator told Romney that his first consideration when voting on any bill should be, “Will this help me win re-election?”

But the 2015 Republican Party was especially vulnerable to a hostile takeover by someone like Trump. Divided by years of infighting and ideological incoherence, and plagued by a growing misalignment between its base and its political class, the Republican Party was effectively a huge institutional power vacuum. The litmus tests continued to change. The formula to achieve re-election became obsolete. Republicans with solidly conservative backgrounds, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, were being eliminated in the primaries by obscure Tea Party upstarts.

For many elected Republicans, it was probably like an answer to their prayers when a strong man finally parachuted in and started telling them what to do. Perhaps his orders were reckless and contradictory. But as long as you did your best to look like you were obeying, you could expect to still win your primaries.

As for Trump, it’s easy to see the current appeal of this deal. The newbie was canceled long ago, and the war stories between Manhattan and real estate have faded. Republicans in Congress might be the only seemingly powerful people in America who will allow him to boss them around, humiliate them, and exert unbridled dominance over them. They have made the myth a reality. How could he leave now?

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