President Trump sure doesn’t make it easy for Republicans. We just witnessed a rather extraordinary moment in which even members of his own party couldn’t bring themselves to defend him, and some even went so far as to condemn his endorsement of Russia’s innocence in the matter of the 2016 election. But has the fundamental dynamic of GOP politics changed?
Republicans have always faced a dilemma: Trump’s unique presidency is dragging down their party, potentially bringing them to a loss of one or both houses of Congress this November, but at the same time, the party has created a cult of personality around Trump in which every Republican politician will be measured by how impeccably loyal they are to the president.
Consider Martha Roby, the Alabama congresswoman who faces a runoff today almost entirely because in 2016, she called for Trump to step aside after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged of his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. Roby is favored to prevail, but the fact that she’s in a runoff at all — against a former Democrat who has reinvented himself as the staunchest of pro-Trump candidates — is a reminder to Republicans everywhere that their survival still depends on fealty to Trump.
It’s tempting when something dramatic such as Trump’s news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin occurs to believe that now everything is different. But the truth is that as unique a moment as that was, within a week or two we’ll probably settle back into the reality we’ve gotten used to, with a mere three or four appalling controversies per week — but more important, controversies in which the entire Republican Party is firmly behind the president.
You can bet that Trump is now thinking hard about how to make that happen. My guess is that he was surprised by the reaction to what happened in Helsinki, after which he even got criticized by some of the personalities on Fox News (though not, of course, Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson). So now he’ll be looking for ways to reinforce his bond with the Republican base. That means creating and promoting controversies that unite Republicans and separate them from Democrats.
How do you do that? You keep reminding your voters of where their loyalty must lie. Take, for instance, this tweet from former hearing-impaired wrestling coach and current hard-right Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio:
The point is: Forget about whatever Trump said about Putin and remember who your enemies are. And your enemies are anyone who criticizes Trump.
When you’ve created a cult of personality around the president, you almost have no choice but to make that argument to your voters. We didn’t see a lot of competition in Republican primaries this year about who had the better tax plan or ideas about health care; those contests were much more likely to feature this argument: “I’m the most loyal to Trump.” “No, I’m the most loyal to Trump!”
The danger for the GOP isn’t that an event like Helsinki — or the trade war that may be having a particularly damaging impact on many pro-Trump areas of the country — will raise enough doubts about Trump to make Republican voters choose the Democrat in their House or Senate race in November (though that might happen in a small number of cases). It’s that those controversies will chip away at the cult of personality. If Trump is just like other politicians from your party — most of the time you’re happy about him but sometimes you aren’t — and not someone who inspires fervid devotion, then that means you might not come out to vote in an off-year election such as this one, if it’s raining or if you have a bunch of errands to run that Tuesday.
There are many things Trump doesn’t understand, but he understands the politics of division. He can talk about how the current economy is the greatest in the history of the galaxy, but what he really needs is for Republicans to be tightly bound to him and angry at Democrats, angry enough to get themselves to the polls come hell or high water. That’s why in very short order he’s going to stop talking about his great friendship with Putin and go back to his more reliable repertoire: Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation is a witch hunt, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is a meanie, Democrats want open borders so immigrants can come kill you and your family, and so on. For both him and the Republicans whose fate depends on him in November, it’s much more comfortable ground.