...Capitol Hill Republicans have papered over their not-insignificant policy differences with Trump, shying away from any statement about the president-elect that might possibly be construed as critical. They're terrified of arousing the ire of their tempestuous new leader -- or being labeled a turncoat by his army of followers.It's a novel form of party message discipline that stems from Trump but doesn't necessarily require the president-elect to speak or tweet himself. Plenty of others are willing to do it for him.Since the election, numerous congressional Republicans have refused to publicly weigh in on any Trump proposal at odds with Republican orthodoxy....The most common reason, stated repeatedly but always privately: They're afraid of being attacked by Breitbart or other big-name Trump supporters.
In the traditional political science model, a president's popularity is tied directly to his political capital and his capacity to advance his agenda, which makes a fair amount of sense. After all, when a president enjoys a strong approval rating, riding a wave of public support, it stands to reason that members of Congress and others would want to be seen as cooperating with a popular national leader.The inverse is equally true: when a president is unpopular, his capital is diminished. "Why should we go along with what the White House wants." members of Congress ask themselves, "when his public support is so weak?"The traditional model, however, isn't what it used to be. Donald Trump, for example, just lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, and polls show he'll soon be the least popular incoming president in modern history. And yet, Politico reports that congressional Republicans are terrified of crossing him, not because Trump is an imposing figure, but because his followers have scared GOP officials into submission.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told Politico, "Nobody wants to go first. People are naturally reticent to be the first out of the block for fear of Sean Hannity, for fear of Breitbart, for fear of local folks."A Republican staffer on Capitol Hill added that this dynamic is having a "chilling effect" on GOP lawmakers. Republicans who may otherwise be inclined to criticize Trump on occasion are scared of the inevitable far-right backlash.In this new model, public opinion is generally unimportant to Republicans -- because partisan opinions are the only attitudes that matter.This was a common feature of the Obama era, when GOP lawmakers felt compelled to reject the White House's outreach, even when they agreed with the president, because they believed any compromise with Obama would generate far-right fury and possibly even a primary challenger who'd characterize bipartisan policymaking as a betrayal of conservative principles.Whether the president was popular or not was irrelevant. What mattered to Republicans is what Republicans thought of Obama, not the opinions of the electorate at large.This dynamic will likely be intensified over the next four years, with a network of rabid Trump followers ready to pounce on any signs of disloyalty to the party leader.For much of 2016, there was ample talk in Republican circles that if Trump were elected, congressional Republicans could help keep him in check, preventing the amateur president from doing anything outrageously reckless or irresponsible. But with Trump's Inauguration Day drawing closer, that talk now appears naïve, if not ridiculous. They're clearly not the ones calling the shots.GOP lawmakers are already feeling bullied and cowed into silence by their party's radicalized base -- and Trump hasn't even taken office yet.