Republicans are feeling a mixture of glee and disorientation one week after Donald Trump shocked the world by defeating Hillary Clinton for the presidency. Trump’s victory gives the GOP a rare chance to actually accomplish its goals. As well as wresting back the White House, the party has retained strong majorities in both houses of Congress. But Trump won as an insurgent, emphasizing his dislike of Washington and the GOP establishment at every turn. His candidacy attracted criticism from pillars of the Republican Party including Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). And, in winning, he vindicated an approach that many of the party’s leading lights had believed was doomed to failure.
Victory has a powerfully unifying effect, and that was seen on Tuesday when Ryan was unanimously nominated by his party to continue as Speaker. Notably, the members nominating him included Rep. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Chris Collins (N.Y.), an early Trump supporter.
For all of Trump’s disruptiveness, the GOP leadership in the House looks set to remain unchanged from before his election. In addition to Ryan, Republicans voted to keep Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) in their leadership positions.
Ryan refused to campaign for Trump in the later stages of the race and, back in June, accused his party’s nominee of making “the textbook definition of a racist statement” after Trump attacked a U.S.-born judge of Mexican heritage.
But there was no sign of those misgivings on Tuesday, when Ryan told reporters after a meeting of the GOP conference that “our job is not to look backwards.” The Speaker also insisted that the House GOP was “on the same page” as the president-elect and was working “hand in glove” with him.
Republican lawmakers were in an exuberant mood Tuesday, as they wrapped their heads around the fact that they are in a position of unexpected power. In the immediate run-up to Election Day, even many conservatives appeared resigned to Trump losing the White House race.
But it turned out very differently. Members attending the House GOP conference meeting on Tuesday morning found a red “make America great again” baseball cap waiting for each of them — a colorful way to underline the unexpected positive reversal in the party’s fortunes.
The bottom line even for many Republicans skeptical of Trump is that they are delighted to have an incoming GOP president sitting atop a unified government — especially when the alternative would have been a Hillary Clinton presidency, and likely gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“I feel pretty good about it,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and former aide to party leaders in Congress, who has been critical of Trump in the past. “If you look at what just happened, not only did Trump win but he helped to preserve the Republican Senate majority and stem any major losses for House Republicans. Now we have the opportunity to get a lot done.”
When all is said and done, Bonjean added, “We would rather have a Republican in the White House than Hillary Clinton.”
Even so, Bonjean summarized his feeling as “cautiously optimistic,” founded largely on his belief that Trump is a populist rather than a consistent conservative.
The appointment of controversial former Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon as chief strategist also gives Washington Republicans heartburn. Bannon is a long-time foe of Ryan and other Republican leaders, and is identified with the “alt-right” movement.
Critics of that movement assert that it traffics in racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.
The fact that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was made chief of staff isn’t enough to assuage some center-right Republican anxiety about the direction of the incoming Trump administration.
GOP strategist Dan Judy, whose firm North Star Opinion Research worked for the presidential campaign of erstwhile Trump rival Sen. Marco Rubio(Fla.), said that he found out about the two key appointments in quick succession over the weekend.
“I saw the headline about Reince Priebus being named White House chief of staff and I thought, ‘This is good. He is a smart guy, a trusted guy.’ And then about 20 minutes later, I saw the headline about Steve Bannon becoming a senior adviser, and I thought ‘Oh boy!’”
Judy said he was “apprehensive” about the future, partly because “there is no way to predict right now what a Trump administration, in terms of policy, is going to look like.”
Asked directly if he was happy that Trump had won, Judy paused briefly before answering.
“I’m not. And it would be the same answer if Hillary Clinton had won,” he said.
While Judy declared himself “delighted” about Republican down-ballot successes, he added, “I’m not particularly happy he was elected. I don’t like or endorse the sort of rhetoric he used during the campaign. His credentials in terms of conservative policy are questionable at best.”
Unease is evident beyond the ranks of strategists, too.
On Tuesday, the day after Trump had an apparently positive call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, McCain released a statement.
“Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States,” it read. “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”