The story Donald Trump tells about himself – and about himself – has always been one of domination. He goes through the canonical texts of his personal mythology. In The art of the market, he filled page after page with examples of his hard-line negotiating tactics. On The apprentice, he reigned over a conference room full of supplicants vying for his approval. And at his campaign rallies, he regularly regales crowds with stories of various world leaders armed with force in the Oval Office.
This image of Trump has always been dubious. These boardroom scenes were, after all, reality TV gimmicks; these stories in his book were, by his own Negro story, exaggerated in many cases to make Trump seem wiser than he was. And there have been enough report suggesting that many of the world leaders Trump interacted with as president viewed him more as an easily manipulated brand than as a domineering statesman to be feared.
The truth is that Trump, for all his tough-guy posturing, has spent most of his career failing to shake people up 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 gets theatrical displays of devotion from them — and if they upset him, he makes them pay. If there is one area of American power in which Trump could truly be the ruthless alpha he played on television – and indeed there may be only one – it is indeed Republican policy. His influence was on full display this week, when he derailed a bipartisan border security bill. would have because he wants to campaign on the immigration “crisis” this year.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser, 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 was capable of intimidating people that much.”
He pointed to Trump's salary negotiations with NBC during Trump's campaign. Apprentice years. Jeff Zucker, who ran the network at the time, said that Trump once came to ask him for a raise. At the time, Trump was making $40,000 per episode, but he wanted to make as much as the entire cast of the show. Friends combined: $6 million per episode. Zucker countered with $60,000. When Trump hesitated, 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 with the power Trump wields on Capitol Hill: how can he kill a bill Or reject a candidacy for president with a single post on social media; how high-ranking members of Congress are so desperate for his approval that they will instruct their staffers to sort Starburst packets and choose only pinks and reds so Trump can be presented with his favorite flavors.
“I just remember 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 congressional Republicans have been so much softer than anyone Trump has run against is a matter of interpretation. One explanation is that Trump has simply achieved far more success in politics than he ever had, relatively speaking, in New York real estate or on network television. For all his tabloid omnipresence, Trump has never had anything resembling the presidential bully pulpit.
” It is obvious that [when] the president and leader of your party is pushing for something…this is what’s going to happen,” a former chief of staff to a Republican senator, who requested anonymity in order to candidly describe the thinking, told me of his former colleagues. “Take out the office and put it back in a professional environment, where facts and fundamentals matter, and it doesn’t surprise me that it hasn’t been that easy.”
But, of course, Trump is no longer the president — and there's also something unique about the influence he continues to wield over Republicans on Capitol Hill. In his previous life, Trump had viewers, readers, fans — but he never led a movement that could end the careers of people on the other side of the negotiating table.
And Trump – whose animal instinct for weakness is one of his defining traits – seemed early on to have an intuition about the psychology of the Republicans over whom he would one day rule.
Nunberg told me about a speech he 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 laughed. “It’s so true,” he said, according to Nunberg. “That’s all they care about.” (Nunberg was ultimately fired from the 2016 Trump campaign.)
This philosophy of preserving jobs at all costs is not a strictly partisan phenomenon in Washington, nor is it new. As I noted in my recent mitt romney biography, the Utah senator was surprised, upon his arrival in Congress, by the enormous psychic currency that his colleagues attached to their positions. One senator told Romney that his first consideration when voting on a bill should be: “Will this help me get re-elected?” »
But the Republican Party of 2015 was particularly vulnerable to a hostile takeover by someone like Trump. Divided by years of infighting and ideological incoherence, and plagued by growing disalignment between its base and its political class, the Republican Party was in reality a great institutional power vacuum. The litmus tests kept changing. The formula for getting re-elected was obsolete. Republicans with solidly conservative backgrounds, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, were getting wiped out in primaries by obscure Tea Party newcomers.
For many Republican elected officials, it probably seemed like an answer to their prayers when a strongman finally parachuted in and started telling them what to do. Perhaps his orders were reckless and contradictory. But as long as you do your best to appear obedient, you can hope to continue winning your primaries.
As for Trump, it’s easy to see the continued appeal of this arrangement. The apprentice was canceled a long time ago, and the Manhattan-real estate war stories faded. The Republicans in Congress may be the only seemingly powerful people in America who will allow him to rule them, humiliate them, and assert unbridled domination over them. They made the myth true. How could he leave now?