The Weight of Trump: The GOP’s Narrow PR Path to 2018

This past Tuesday, the world rocked a little bit.

All told, it was a comparatively minor quake, nothing like the monster tremors of 2016 that seemed to shake the very foundations of reality for a large swathe of the American people. But the first real electoral test of the Trump coalition – that erstwhile basket of deplorables – did not go terribly well for the Grand Old Party. I suspect one would not be remiss in describing the results as fundamentally catastrophic.

There is essentially no way anyone within the Republican Party could look at November 7, 2017 as anything less than a repudiation, not only of Trump’s agenda, but of Trump himself. And when your party is so closely tied to a deeply unpopular president, when that president has so thoroughly co-opted its ideology and mission statement, you’re going to go down with him.

That is the devil’s bargain the GOP struck when it nominated him; “if we can get ANY republican into the White House,” the reasoning went, “we can essentially pass our legislative package unopposed. And if the cost is that we have to let Trump carry us for a few years, it’s worth it.” Rational, if certainly unprincipled and calculating. But their electoral success last year, for all its Sturm und Drang, did little beyond exposing the inability of the GOP coalition to govern in any meaningful capacity, as the party, bereft of the unifying force of a common foe in the person of Barack Obama, has been rent by internal divisions even as the president himself is plagued by bad press. The end result has been a lack of any quantifiable results to justify the Party’s continued tolerance of the president’s antics – and ongoing scandals.

People noticed.

So now, instead of celebrating a year of legislative and policy triumphs that should have followed their conquest of two out of three branches of federal government alongside a solid majority of statehouses and governor’s mansions, the GOP has found themselvesabandoned by the people who handed them victory at a most inopportune time: the eve of a midterm election year.

This puts the GOP in a bit of a bad spot, and one they’ll need help crawling out of. It’s ultimately a question of public relations: how, if it’s even possible, can a party get out from under the toxic cloud of Trump’s low popularity ratings?

In my professional opinion: Dump Trump.

This isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, but it’s still vitally necessary; barring impeachment, Trump is on course to be president for three more years, minimum, and yoking the party’s fortunes to him has proven to have diminishing returns now that he’s in power; the scandals that dog him transfer over to the party that permits and apologizes for them. Again and again, voters reported that they voted Democrat specifically to signal their displeasure with the president. If this pattern continues next year, the GOP will find it has squandered what advantages it had.

The best way forward isn’t to specifically oppose the president as much as it is to take pains to stay far from him. This is a very difficult path forward, but it means getting serious and even vocal when he acts in troubling ways. And since he’s likely not leaving office before January 20, 2020, he’s going to be an ongoing PR disaster that requires constant management. That means staying credible, not simply for the core MAGA crowd, but for the invaluable swing voters who decide elections; if they aren’t doing that, they’re going to lose.

In truth, it certainly feels like an impossible position; maybe it really is impossible to please the entire Trump coalition all at once. But it should be possible, if certainly difficult, to take pains to disavow the president’s more extreme comments and behavior in such a way as to communicate to the country – the parts of it that need convincing, anyway – that the policies of the GOP on a national scale are neither identical to nor enabling of all of his rhetoric.

Like it or not (and I assure you I do not), much of what Trump has proposed has found an eager audience: restricting immigration, getting tough on “crime,” a muscular foreign policy, broad-based tax reform, and even the failed repeal of the ACA. And these are all positions which the institutional GOP can and does want to work with him on securing. But he ties all of those up in his petty media squabbles, his feuding with his own party, his grandstanding and hostility. Regardless of how you feel about the GOP agenda, you have to recognize that Trump’s combative personality is only making it harder to achieve, creating drama and friction that’s dragging everyone downballot.

In other words, how do you advance your agenda when your own leader is a fountain of scandal and bad press that demands constant management? Simply ignoring the problem, as the GOP has largely been doing in public for the last year and a half, doesn’t seem to be working. Trotting out his rhetoric without invoking him by name only led to the defeat of Ed Gillespie in Virginia. The problem isn’t the GOP. The problem isn’t even conservatism as such. And unless they can find a way to distance themselves from the source of every ounce of unfortunate and scandalous news, they will continue to lose grip over middle-of-the-road voters who are exactly as skeptical of the left as they are the right, but who increasingly see the GOP as a bastion of insanity.

That’s the story that needs to change. And it needs to change very soon. 2018 is less than two months away.

If they can’t manage the news cycle, they’ll be caught up in the whirlwind heading right into next November. And then where will they be?

Simple.

In the minority.

Originally published at HuffPost.