President Trump and the Republican Party are conducting a bold experiment in American democracy: ruling for and implementing policy on behalf of just 35 percent of the voting public.
On issue after issue, Republicans are pursuing (although thanks to their world-historic ineptitude, not actually yet achieving) policy goals that are not just divisive in a split-down-the-middle sense, but that are unambiguously opposed by towering majorities of American citizens. For the first time in our history, we have a governing party that seems to believe it can win re-election by implementing policies that are about as popular as parking tickets, and which will be greeted with all of the enthusiasm that we reserve for a bout of Norovirus.
If nothing else, you have to respect the audacity.
The polling is stark, and holds for social or cultural issues as well as substantive economic policies. President Trump himself is on the wrong side of nearly every single major culture war initiative he has pursued. Broad majorities of Americans believe the president tweets too often (69 percent), that his use of the platform at all is a net negative (59 percent), that health insurance should pay for birth control (69 percent), that NFL players should have the right to kneel during the national anthem without being fired (57 percent), and that they can trust the media to tell them the truth (68 percent). On foreign policy, the story is not much different. While President Trump careens and rage-tweets his way to a needless crisis over the Iran deal, Americans want the accord to remain in place (56 percent to 29 percent). Similarly, a decisive majority opposes military action against North Korea (60 percent to 29 percent) and 70 percent believe the president's lunatic posturing and schoolyard name-calling are unhelpful in de-escalating the crisis. Americans disapproved of President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by a mile, too (59 percent to 28 percent).
The numbers are much, much worse for the economic agenda being incompetently pressed by a GOP leadership that has seemingly lost the ability to steward legislation through the committee process and onto the floor. The GOP's plan to raise taxes on working people while slashing rates for the Hamptons set debuted at 28 percent support this week, with an overwhelming majority (65 percent) believing that large corporations should pay more in taxes rather than less. The GOP plan: Do the exact opposite of what a 2-1 majority wants.
Why else would his administration rescind the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program when 70 percent of respondents want a path to citizenship for the DREAMers? Even Trump's magical, see-through border wall is down to 35 percent. Republicans also plan to cripple the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and roll back the Dodd-Frank financial reform passed into law under former President Obama, both of which continue to enjoy 74 percent approval from the public. Before it was euthanized behind closed doors last week, the Graham-Cassidy health-care atrocity was polling at 20 percent. Split the difference on undecideds and "don't knows" and you'll probably get somewhere close to what seems to be some kind of holy polling number in Trumpworld: 35 percent — or about what the president himself polls at on his bad days.
There are two possible explanations for why the Republicans are chasing destructive policy goals like a pack of sheep off a very steep cliff. The first is that they believe in a democratic theory called "trustee representation" — the idea that in a democracy, elected officials should feel free to pursue what they believe is in the best interest of society rather than what the public wants at any given time. This was what motivated many Democrats in Congress to vote for the Affordable Care Act in 2010 despite the fact that its public support had collapsed by the time the bill was passed and even though they knew that many of them would lose their seats as a result. Their belief that expanding access to health care was worth their seats and their careers has so far been proven correct.
The framers of the Constitution were famously torn between the trustee model and the alternative of "delegate representation" — that elected officials should try to translate public sentiment into law, and that they should be held accountable when they do things that citizens oppose. The insanely frequent elections to the House, for example, are evidence that the framers believed at least somewhat in delegate representation. But so many of the other procedures and institutions, from the Electoral College to the original procedures for electing U.S. senators, were evidence that the Constitution's architects distrusted the public and sought to empower a class of ruling wise men to temper popular passions.
But don't kid yourself: The GOP isn't making grotesquely unpopular policy after deep-reading the Federalist Papers and chasing it with John Rawls. There is another, simpler explanation, one that is not rooted in a noble, if misguided, reading of democratic theory: The Republican Party of 2017 is a gang of thieves, miscreants, and shameless liars, acting not on any conceivable interpretation of the public good but instead governing in the interest of their donors and their increasingly unhinged base, the sort of people who would elect a lawless theocrat called Roy Moore to one of the 100 or so most important offices in the entire country. They are gambling that their only meaningful challenge is to survive the wrath of their primary voters, who they expect, as the political scientists Justin Fox and Kenneth Shotts wrote in an 2014 paper, to "ignore outcomes, and instead hold incumbents to an ideological litmus test — rewarding them with re-election only if their policy positions signal congruence."
In other words, Republicans are asking their primary voters to treat them like delegate representatives, and the American people to defer to them as trustees.
That's a tough needle to thread even for people who are bright and well-intentioned, which this bunch is not.
The entire theory of trustee representation is based on an assumption that representatives possess some measure of expertise not available to the general public, an argument that is very difficult to make about the contemporary Republican Party, whose preferred policies are not just shunned by the public but also run contrary to prevailing expert opinion in almost every conceivable realm. Pursuing a 15-point policy agenda that the public disapproves of 2-1 and that anyone with any meaningful expertise thinks is a set of looming and interconnected travesties is not some act of political charity designed to protect us from our worst instincts, but rather evidence that the GOP has become so arrogant and so confident in its ability to hold onto office in perpetuity that they literally couldn't care less what we think or how many people their policies will harm.
There remains only one way to convince them to care. Indeed, leaving office in disgrace after an electoral shellacking might be the only possible GOP action a majority of the public will ever support.