When Donald Trump won the presidency, his relationship with the rest of the Republican Party looked like a potentially shaky marriage. But the GOP is Trump’s party now.
We’re full swing into primary season for the midterms, and where are the Republican voices offering any alternative to Trumpism? Traditionalist conservatives have been shuffled off the stage.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona decried Trump’s “regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals.” He’s retiring. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who called the White House “an adult day-care center,” is retiring too. And Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who denounced Trump’s “half-baked, spurious nationalism,” is dying of cancer. Mitt Romney, who once called Trump a fraud, is running to be the next senator from Utah; now the harshest thing he’ll say is that the president isn’t “a role model for my grandkids.”
The collapse of other Republicans’ ability to push back against Trump is the most worrisome political development of the last year, say political scientists. That’s right, the biggest long-term threat to the health of the nation, they say, is not tax cuts favoring the wealthy, not trade wars and not radical deregulation — but the hostile takeover of the GOP.
“The biggest change for the worst is the performance of the Republican Party,” Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky, coauthor of “How Democracies Die,” told me recently. “At first, it seemed there was a faction in the Senate that would draw a line. But that’s much weaker now.”
“It’s striking how much Trump has captured the party,” agreed Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs. Democracy.”
Case in point: Trump’s recent crusade — deliberate, sustained and relentless — against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, during which the president has impugned his own attorney general, deputy attorney general and the FBI.
Last month, Trump accused the FBI of planting a spy in his 2016 campaign and said such an action “would be illegal, and a scandal to boot!” No Republican leader in Congress stood up to correct him. Instead, several agreed with Trump that the FBI’s conduct should be formally investigated. Only a few backbenchers spoke up, including Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina — who, notably, also has decided to retire.
It’s not unusual for party members to rally around their president. But when they worry that a headstrong president is heading in the wrong direction, congressional leaders normally try to rein him in. This time, though, Senate leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — another early retiree! — appear to have given up trying.
“There is no Republican Party; there’s a Trump party,” former House Speaker John A. Boehner observed. “The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
During that nap, Trump’s popularity has ticked upward over the last six months. This week, the Real Clear Politics website’s average of polls calculated Trump’s job approval among all voters at 45 percent, up from 40 percent in January. (That’s still worse than every other recent president at this point in their terms, with the exception of Jimmy Carter.)
Among Republican voters, however, Trump’s support is stratospheric. The Gallup Poll reported last week that 87 percent of GOP voters approve of what he’s doing. As a result, Republicans who want to survive their primaries won’t say a word against the boss in public.
Trump also appears to be radicalizing Republican voters — shaping their views to follow his. The polling organization YouGov reported last month that 75 percent of Republican voters agree with Trump that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt,” and 61 percent think the president is being framed. Those numbers have gone up as Trump has pressed his case against the FBI.
And that brings us to this year’s midterm election, including Tuesday’s primaries in California. Long term, the outcomes will determine more than which party holds the majority in the House or Senate. The vote will also hold a message for every Republican officeholder: Was Trump a boost or a burden?
If the party holds on to its House and Senate majorities, many of its officeholders and strategists will conclude that Trump has been right all along. The GOP will continue remolding itself in the image of Trump — populist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant.
Only if a “blue wave” of Democratic votes sweeps not just California, but also swing states, will the party open the question of whether Ohio Gov. John Kasich or someone else should run against Trump to be the GOP nominee in 2020.
These midterms will be an important signal to the GOP as it considers if it wants more Trump or less — and whether choosing a volatile populist as its nominee turns out to be a one-time anomaly or a pattern for the future.
“I’m not so worried about Donald Trump as a threat to American democracy, because he’s not very competent,” Mounk said. “I’m more worried about what would happen if at some point we were to elect a more competent version.”
Doyle McManus is a contributing writer to Opinion.