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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Anti-Trump noise within poses little short-term threat to GOP 'unity'

Joe Walsh, on the floor of Congress in

Joe Walsh, on the floor of Congress in 2011, and now mounting a challenge against President Donald Trump for the Republican presidental nomination in 2020. Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Presidents usually become their parties’  bosses upon election.

 Donald Trump is no exception. He has put his brand on the national Republican organization and his fans love it.

Trump's popularity within the GOP — combined with his unpopularity among most other Americans — make it especially easy for Trump & Co. to bat down internal dissent. Disloyalty, after all, could aid the partisan "enemy" all around. More than ever, painting the rival as a threat to America helps both major parties rally the faithful.

So it was interesting to hear right-wing radio talker Joe Walsh this week launch a maverick primary challenge to the first-term president. "Eighty to 90 percent of my audience supports the president," he acknowledged in an interview broadcast Monday. "I just found out that I lost my national radio show."

For Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, the rationale to run seems at first blush less ideological than personal. It is as if he is substituting the old slogan "It's the economy, stupid" with "It's his conduct, stupid."

"I’m betting you’re tired of having an unfit con man for a president," Walsh says on a campaign website. "A president who sides with foreign dictators over our intelligence community. A president who spews hate virtually every time he opens his mouth.

"A president who is teaching millions of American children it’s okay to lie and it’s okay to bully."

But whether it's Walsh, or former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, or former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, an anti-Trump Republican candidate seems far from likely to establish a Trump-like cult of personality.

Top GOP swamp-dwellers in Washington clearly embrace Trump as their ticket to power. With little interest in policy details, he empowers his party's Senate majority. They rule on nominations, cultural issues, spending, regulations and taxes. And Trump does nothing to force Republican lawmakers into difficult choices on health care, immigration or bridges.

No wonder so many of his 2016 foes in the Senate, whom he slandered in personal ways, have bowed and scraped in Trump's presence, with only occasional, narrow objections. These include Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mitt Romney. It may not be adulation, but it is tacit agreement. Free trade, budget balance, and other past Republican goals go unspoken for.

Some moves against dissent are more aggressive. The Republican National Committee has approved a nonbinding resolution declaring its "undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective presidency." And as The Associated Press reports, South Carolina and Nevada could cancel their GOP primaries and proclaim Trump their preferred nominee.

This is just one more way that 2020 offers a mirror image of 2016. Last time, Democratic insiders had a chosen presidential successor, Hillary Clinton, for whom the nomination was paved.

This time it's the GOP's turn to try to keep the White House as Democratic contenders slug it out on crowded debate stages.

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