LAST week was another tumultuous one for Donald Trump and his struggling American presidential administration. He lost one of his most sensible cabinet secretaries in casually dismissing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Tillerson once reportedly described Trump as a moron. The expected replacement, Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas Tea Party stalwart from one of America’s most isolationist states, promises little more than an obsequious echo of Trump’s worst, most ignorant impulses on international affairs.
Meanwhile, in a conservative southwest Pennsylvania congressional district long comfortably in Republican hands, a special election was held Tuesday to fill a vacancy created when the GOP incumbent, a steadfast foe of abortion rights, was caught encouraging his lover to have an abortion. Eventually, he decided it was best to resign. There was apparently no escaping his phenomenal hypocrisy.
Trump, superficially complacent, isolated and wilfully ignorant as usual, waded right into this bi-election with two campaign rallies to support a sagging Republican nominee who could do little but proclaim his allegiance to Trump as justification for voter support. Trump thus made the election a mandate on his presidency.
Then the Democratic candidate won.
What could be politically wrong or concerning with this picture for the GOP?
If one listens to the pathetic chorus of congressional Republicans, the answer is little or nothing is wrong. It is discouragingly clear that at least in the House of Representatives, GOP politicians have concluded their own best personal chance of surviving what may be a November bloodbath for their party is to tie their election chances to Trump.
But history shows that when a president’s popularity dips below 50 percent, his party really receives an epic beating. Trump’s current numbers are around 40 percent. So a debacle looms for Republicans in congress.
At the same time, as we have reported, Trump cannot stop administering self-inflicted wounds to his sagging administration. His ill-advised steel and aluminium tariffs, continuing vulnerability to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian election-meddling investigation and the lingering scandal over Trump’s lawyer’s cover up of his affair with a porn actress have all damaged him.
Congressional GOP politicians are generally bright and well educated. Why would they continue to support an irrational and unpopular president? And if they are not capable of resisting him or recognising the national interest in doing so, how did they get elected in the first place?
The answer to the first question is simple. Despite his numerous gaffes, errors and low ratings, Trump remains much more popular with the Republican base than are GOP members of Congress. The lawmakers recognise this, and have decided to tie their fate to Trump’s.
One easy but not inaccurate answer to the second question is gerrymandering. An arcane term whose origin is traced to a Massachusetts politician over 200 years ago, gerrymandering occurs when a state legislature draws boundaries for federal congressional districts to benefit its own party members. By isolating and marginalising supporters of the opposing party, politicians can stack the political deck to benefit allies. This often results in bizarre electoral geography whose only obvious purpose is political.
An often-cited example is an eastern Pennsylvania district resembling a cartoon picture of “Goofy kicking Donald Duck” after the Republican legislature distorted political boundaries to favour future GOP candidates. As the Washington Post reported, the district spanned parts of five counties and at its narrowest point was only as wide as the parking lot behind a seafood restaurant.
Republicans have cleverly and effectively worked to take control of state legislatures around the country during the last 20 years, resulting in the anomaly of GOP control of a solid majority of them despite winning less than 50 percent of votes in statewide elections. Those state legislatures, especially after the 2010 census and bi-elections provided a golden opportunity to do so, have frequently behaved so egregiously that a North Carolina gerrymandered redistricting case has now come before the US Supreme Court.
The district won last week by a Democrat so publicly opposed by Trump will not exist in November, when new boundaries approved by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will restore fairness to the election. It’s more bad news for Trump and his band of spineless congressional lemmings.