Trump can enforce discipline on congressional Republicans almost effortlessly, with a combination of carrots and sticks that are fixed aspects of his relationship with them. The carrots are the points of policy consensus between Trump and Republican members of the House and Senate. The sticks are the ways that Trump can credibly threaten the careers of many House Republicans, and even some Senate Republicans, if they challenge him.
Set aside the frighteningly real concern that Republicans who cross Trump will see their emails plastered all over the Internet. Trump’s unpopularity masks the powerful effects of partisan polarization. His overall approval rating may be a dismal 37 percent, but in a polarized environment, that level of support means he is overwhelmingly popular among Republican voters and beloved by the GOP base. For most Republicans, opposing him would invite bigger political problems than they’ll willingly accept…
By abandoning even the pretense of congressional oversight, Republicans are leaving it almost entirely to reporters to scrutinize Trump’s ethical and legal conduct. But as he demonstrated on Wednesday, he has no misgivings about slandering news outlets (or any institutions really) that reveal unflattering things about him.
And the same polarization that makes him broadly unpopular, but enduringly popular with GOP voters, will insulate him from the political consequences of scandal. The result is that Trump will be able to operate with impunity for the foreseeable future. If he becomes so reviled that Republicans are no longer scared of him, they might finally arrest the damage — but we’ll have to wait until then to know the full toll.