Ramesh Ponnuru pushes back on the idea that the GOP, meaning the actual politicians in Congress as opposed to the base, is now the Party of Trump.
“He’s got a lot of [sway], no question,” Ponnuru writes. “But the extent to which the Republican party has become a cult of Trump is often exaggerated… Trump has wanted a lot of things that congressional Republicans haven’t given him: Obamacare repeal, action on infrastructure, immigration reductions. (In February, fourteen Republicans voted against the immigration legislation Trump favored, and none of them seems to be paying any price for it.)”
I see roughly five levels of Trump allegiance on the right these days.
- Trump fanaticism: This is where much of the base, and where the typical FoxNews opinion host, lies. It’s true that the fanatics who openly put fealty to Trump as their defining feature are a minority in the House and Senate, for the moment. And, happily, one of their number announced today that he’s quitting in disgrace. But on the other hand, #Cult45 members such as Devin Nunes don’t exactly fear any backlash from party leadership, no matter how badly they twist their jobs or the rule of law to favor and protect their lord and master. More importantly, the number of GOP primary candidates openly swearing fealty to Trump are growing, such as this specimen from Florida. And speaking of the Sunshine state, one of its more famously spineless products wilted under the pressure to bend the knee. I expect the cultists’ percentage in the House, Senate, and statehouses to swell after the midterms.
- Trump allies: This is where your garden-variety GOP politician finds himself. He’s had his job since before 2016 and was probably nonplussed at the rise of the Ochre Joker. But whatever his reservations about Trump’s moral character, he sees the Democrats as the far bigger threat, and spends his days attacking the liberal agenda, and playing whataboutism to move the conversation back to liberals whenever some fresh Trumpian outrage emerges. Thus, in punditry circles, this has become known as the “anti-anti-Trump” position. They’ll also point to Trump’s successes such as judges while preferring to ignore his failures and, especially, his tweets. There isn’t much material difference between these guys and category 1, although Trump allies won’t make a big show of being #MAGA on their campaign websites and, as Ramesh notes, a minority of them may sometimes feel brave enough to vote against his less popular proposals. Good examples are Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, and Ponnuru’s colleague Rich Lowry.
- Trump snarkers: At this level of dissidence, politicians and pundits no longer hide their disgust for Orange Julius’ moral character or his ridiculous tweets. Great examples are Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake, who will actually register their distaste at the latest bimbo eruption or racist tweet. Still, even they will shake their heads and say, at least he isn’t Hillary, and will eventually hold their noses and vote for him again in 2020. This is about as far as a GOP politician can go and still keep his job (and even then he may face trouble — just ask Bob Corker). Charles Cooke holds down the Trump-snarker fort at National Review. Some former Trump snarkers like Ben Shapiro have instead melted away into category 2.
- Trump skeptics: We finally reach a level of dissent where the conservative is no longer so sure Trump’s victory was the preferable outcome. Not that he’ll be sitting around pining for Hillary, either. Most likely, he didn’t vote for either, writing in Mitt Romney or something instead, arguing that both options were about equally repellent. Of course, he’ll still voice his appreciation for Justice Gorsuch and other conservative policy wins. Rep. Justin Amash will be the sole representative of this faction in the U.S. Congress after this year; Gov. Charlie Baker gets away with it in his deep-blue state of Connecticut. Rep. Mark Sanford was famously sent packing for this stance — while he had other, Appalachian-Trail-sized vulnerabilities, I believe Sanford himself is right and Ponnuru is wrong — it really was his public scoffing at Trump that cost him his job. Jonah Goldberg is the Trump-skeptic voice in Ponnuru’s magazine.
- #NeverTrump: Ah, the great bugaboo of FoxNews, the people that Hannity is convinced are a bigger threat to his master than actual liberals, despite NT’s lack of any representation in any level of politics. To qualify as NT, one must oppose this president as much as any Democrat does, yet still hold onto conservative beliefs — ex-conservatives like Jennifer Rubin or that one random dude on your Facebook timeline don’t qualify. As you can imagine, NT’s numbers are therefore quite tiny, despite their regular appearance on CNN. Their members such as Tom Nichols, Rick Wilson, Bill Kristol and David French may have great moral character, but they don’t seem to really have any meaningful impact in GOP electoral politics any longer. Even the term “NeverTrump” itself has become a snarl word for the right, as much as an invective as “snowflake” and “fake news.”
So what we have are a growing minority faction within the GOP that holds personal fealty to Trump as the most important conservative value; a Trump-allied majority that does nothing to oppose #Cult45, even if they aren’t wearing red ballcaps in public; and a dwindling number of Trump skeptics who either decide to go silent in the face of a threat of being primaried, or have actually been primaried (or have quit in the face of near-certain defeat). All the movement I’ve seen is in the direction of categories 1 and 2 from above; apostates going the other direction like Joe Walsh (who’s been out of Congress for years) are incredibly rare. Is there really any ideal, principle, or person more important to today’s GOP than Donald J. Trump?