Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

We heard during the election that Donald Trump was as much a threat to the Republican Party as to the Democrats – and that part of his appeal was being tough on both of the stale/corrupt parties.

Sure enough, there is evidence that on November 8, voters simultaneously said they liked Trump but disliked Republicans. Because the Democrats fell short of both expectations and winning power, it was barely noticed that:

  • 40% of voters viewed Republicans favorably compared to 47% for the Democrats.
  • The triumphant, newly-re-elected Republican Congress has a 15% approval rating.
  • Republicans did lose two Senate seats and six House seats – a horrible disappointment for Democrats but still, you know, an actual loss of seats.
  • More people voted for Democrats in the Senate races than for Republican.

And yet the Republican Party has more power now than it has in decades, and is acting as if the party received a tidal-wave mandate.

How did this happen? While Trump occasionally clashed with Republican leaders during the campaign — leading to the impression that he was at war with the GOP establishment — it was always over lack of fealty more than policy. The main exception was trade but so as long as the Republican’s are “saying nice things” to Trump, he was perfectly happy to embrace almost all of their policies.  The rift with the GOP establishment was always less than advertised.

Second, as has been often noted, Trump’s lack of knowledge and curiosity about policy has meant he is totally reliant on the people who have the plans — who are congressional republicans, K street lobbyists and industry groups. There is no shadow world of public policy centers crafting a Trumpian alternative to Republican orthodoxy. With the exception of trade and immigration, Trump’s views are standard issue Republican policies, albeit sprinkled with extra bile.

Finally, because so much of the GOP power is safeguarded by gerrymandering, congressional Republicans can act like they have a mandate without much fear that swing voters will punish them.

All in all, it adds up to an odd situation: the Republican party is less popular than its been in ages – and has more  power.

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Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.