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Trump’s politics of wrath leaves GOP in shambles

As former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour indelicately put it, Donald Trump was elected to give Washington "the gigantic middle finger." It's what the rabble, the great American unwashed, wanted – and it's what they have.

The problem is that Mr. Trump has been extending the middle digit to his own party. Republican unity is in near shambles, particularly given the President's latest affront to his own – cutting a deal Wednesday with Democrats on government funding. This was an in-your-face rebuke (the type Trump loves) that left many Capitol Hill Republicans seething.

Party civil wars are as common in the U.S. capital as they are north of the border. Canadian politics have often been just as raucous. John Diefenbaker's Tory leadership occasioned a venomous party revolt, as did Joe Clark's. Brian Mulroney's Tories won a smashing victory in 1984 and another majority in 1988, but that wasn't good enough: With his Reform Party, Preston Manning led a populist rebellion that effectively killed off the federal Progressive Conservative Party, reducing it to two seats.

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There followed on the Liberal Party side the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin wars. Mr. Chrétien won two majorities, whereupon the insurrection of Martin rebels began. He won a third, only to see his antagonists gather in greater numbers and force him out. There's a book coming out on Mr. Chrétien next month by Bob Plamondon called The Shawinigan Fox. It has revelations, which I've read, about the feud. Warning to the Martin crowd: Duck!

But for all the internal party upheavals we've observed, few compare with what's happening these days to the Grand Old Party in the United States. In politics, insurrections from below are common enough. Not so from above. Not so from a President who needs his Republican majority in Congress to get things done but whose politics of wrath prevent that from happening.

Mr. Trump's fiscal deal with Democrats – a short-term fix – to increase the debt limit undercut his party. The Democratic plan had been turned down by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Mr. Trump's Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, wanted a different, longer-term pact but was cut off by Mr. Trump at a meeting in which the President sided with Democratic leaders in the room. "Shell-shocked" was the term making the rounds to describe the GOP reaction.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Trump put his party in a bind with his withdrawal of support for legislation protecting young immigrants. He gave his party a short time frame to find a compromise. Before that, he enraged many fellow Republicans with his commentary on Charlottesville. He attacked his party brethren for failing to rid the country of Obamacare, even though he deserved much of the blame. His hardline take on trade and protectionism is opposed. He's in a feud with the party over funding for the border wall with Mexico.

He badly needs the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell but has often denigrated him – as he has Mr. Ryan and other senior party figures such as Senator John McCain.

In the presidential primaries Mr. Trump took down party establishment candidates one by one. In office, instead of working with Republicans to pass legislation, he seems intent on continuing the war. It's like he wants to kill off the old Republican Party and replace it with his own brand – maybe calling it the Nationalist Party or, to play off Mr. Barbour's quip, the Middle Finger Party.

It's not even certain that Mr. Trump, once a Democrat, deeply believes in the creed of neo-America Firsters such as former strategist Stephen Bannon, who was ousted from his White House post. But he draws his base support from that cohort, one the party cannot afford to lose.

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Large numbers of Republicans would dearly love to desert their leader. The Robert Mueller inquiry into election meddling by Russia could give them an opportunity. But if provoked by signs of rebellion, it is not inconceivable that Mr. Trump would split with the party and run under a new conservative banner. That's a development that, while not reducing it to two seats, would kill the GOP.

Video: Trump unveils rough outline of tax cut package (The Associated Press)
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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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