Approximately once every quarter for the last two years, we’ve been bombarded by declarations that Donald Trump’s takeover of the GOP is complete. The frequency with which the verdict is rendered would suggest the thesis is flawed.
Trump’s takeover of the GOP was complete after he secured the party’s presidential nomination, but it was also complete after he won the presidency. It wasn’t Trump’s GOP until his first address to a joint session of Congress, or maybe when threw congressional Republicans under the bus to accept a deal offered by “Chuck and Nancy,” or when Trump-skeptical Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker ran for the exit. Most recently, this week’s primary contests in South Carolina and Virginia indicate that, at long last, the GOP’s resistance to Trump is in its death throes.
Trump’s “takeover” of the GOP requires constant affirmation because the president is still regarded with suspicion by some of his party’s most prominent federal and state-level elected officials. Of course, Trump as both the president and the titular head of his party commands the fealty of the party’s base voters, its enforcers in media, and elected officials who do not dare offend the party’s core constituents. For them, the “Trump’s takeover of the GOP” theme needs repeating because the condition might be uniquely ephemeral.
Trump’s occasional clashes with Republican lawmakers receive levels of attention disproportionate to their relevance because Trump himself and his followers elevate those conflicts into dramatic contests. It is a satisfying opportunity to relive 2016—a protracted battle Trump and his acolytes decisively won. But those fights are rarely about policy. They are usually about personality.
For example, why did Rep. Mark Sanford lose his primary fight? The Beltway analysis holds it was his frequent criticisms of Trump that did him in. And while there were certainly other issues in the campaign (Sanford lost the support of his state’s Republican establishment and took hits for failing to spend sufficiently on infrastructure as governor), his opponent successfully transformed the race into which of the two loved Trump more. Sanford’s sins consisted of scolding the president for defending white nationalists in Charlottesville and promising to pay the legal fees for his most violent supporters. Policy disagreements took a back seat.
Sanford’s loss came as a surprise to the Freedom Caucus, of which he is a member in good standing. This conservative body of lawmakers, many of whom are staunchly supportive of the president and serve as a bulwark in defense of his agenda in the House, has been critical of Trump’s decision to register his opposition to Sanford on Election Day just in time to get some credit for his loss. Their consternation is understandable. The Freedom Caucus has served as the vanguard for Trump. They have held firm to a hardline approach to immigration, and they are leading the effort to force the Justice Department to disclose information related to its ongoing investigations into Trump and his associates. But Donald Trump cannot suffer personal effrontery, and so one of the Caucus’s leading members had to go.
In Virginia, a truly noxious candidate has managed to secure the Republican nomination to face Senator Tim Kaine in the fall. A transplant from the Upper Midwest, Corey Stewart has leaned heavily into his adopted Southern roots and sought out some questionable associations. He’s draped himself in the Confederate flag, compared the removal of Confederate statuary with the actions of ISIS, associated himself with the “alt-right,” accused Democrats of forging Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and openly supported the virulent anti-Semite and failed congressional candidate Paul Nehlen. Virginia’s Republican figures have attacked Stewart, and the GOP’s Senate committee has withheld its endorsement.
Stewart is playing the part he thinks is most effective in the age of Trump. In 2015, Stewart was, like every other Republican ladder-climber, touting his “relationship with minority voters” because that’s what the 2012 “autopsy” recommended. “That’s what Republicans need to do in order to continue to win elections in Northern Virginia,” he added. Trump demonstrated that there was another path to victory. Barring a miracle, Corey Stewart will not be the next U.S. Senator from Virginia. The satisfaction Republican voters might derive from nominating this flawed candidate is roughly equivalent to screaming into a pillow; a cathartic but fleeting thumb in the eye of “elites.” Stewart and his like will have as lasting an impact on the history of the republic as Todd Akin or Sharron Angle.
Of course, Tuesday’s election results suggest that the GOP is the Party of Trump. They also indicate that the Party of Trump is hard to define beyond association with the man himself. That is due, in part, to the fact that Trump’s policy preferences and ideological affinities are fluid. Six months ago, if you weren’t defending the president’s threat to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, you were a spineless appeaser. Today, if aren’t supportive of Trump’s obsequious praise for the murderous dictator, you’re a blood-soaked warmonger. Trump promised to punish China for its trade practices and currency manipulation, only to selectively abandon those positions. Where Trump stands on NATO, NAFTA, ObamaCare, Russia, Syria, the G-7, DACA, the export-import bank, and a whole range of issues depends on which side of the bed he got up on that morning.
The North Star by which voters can gauge fealty to Trump is the extent to which Republicans defer to him personally. That’s why, as Sen. Corker said, something approaching a cult of personality has sprung up around the president. Voters simply do not have consistent policies and ideological affinities to help them navigate a complex and confusing political environment. The powerful desire to enforce group solidarity around Trump is creating the appearance of homogeneity, but it’s cosmetic. That’s why we are privy to regular assertions that the GOP is Trump’s party now. It requires repetition because it is not self-evident.
Yes, the Republican Party is the party of Trump. But the centrifugal pull associated with the principle and ideology toward which Trump was and remains hostile continues to pull on the Republicans whose political maturation predated Trump’s inauguration. A fair reading of the political environment must concede it is still unclear which of these two competing forces will win out in the end.