(Alex Brandon/AP)
Opinion writer

The big news in Tuesday night’s elections is the defeat of GOP establishment pick Tim Pawlenty in the Minnesota GOP gubernatorial primary, at the hands of a full-blown Trump loyalist. This makes a Democratic victory in the state more likely, and crucially, it probably makes it easier for Democrats to hold a couple of House seats they are defending in the state, which is key to Democrats’ hopes of taking back the lower chamber this fall.

Beyond this, Pawlenty’s loss provides a useful way to try to understand what is happening in the GOP of the Trump era. After it happened, Pawlenty told reporters:

“The Republican Party has shifted. It is the era of Trump and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”

The phrase “Trump-like politician,” it turns out, is basically a euphemism for a “politician who is willing to defend President Trump at his most reprehensible moments.” The man who decisively defeated Pawlenty, local commissioner Jeff Johnson, actually ran an ad that blasted Pawlenty for failing to stand by Trump after the news broke of the “Access Hollywood” video, which featured Trump boasting in extremely lewd fashion about his ability to carry out sexual assaults with impunity.

Johnson’s ad hits Pawlenty for calling Trump “unhinged and unfit to be president,” just weeks before the 2016 election, a reference to the statement that Pawlenty put out after the “Access Hollywood” news broke. In the ad, Johnson then says, “When the Supreme Court and our economy were on the line, Tim Pawlenty stuck his finger in the wind,” before declaring himself the real “conservative” in the race and promising not to “panic when it matters most”:

A broader pattern

It turns out that this is part of a pattern. As a Democratic operative points out to me, multiple Republican candidates have been placed on the defensive during this cycle for the same thing: failing to support Trump not just in a general sense, but more precisely for failing to support Trump when the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced.

In the Michigan gubernatorial primary, for instance, Trump’s pick — Attorney General Bill Schuette — hammered his opponent, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, specifically for pulling his support for Trump when the tape became public. “You deserted Trump,” Schuette said. “The president knows who was with him and who was not.” (Schuette went on to win the primary.)

Notably, Schuette ran an ad on this that used almost exactly the same language that Johnson’s ad did in Minnesota. “With the White House and Supreme Court hanging on the line,” Schuette’s ad said, “Brian Calley deserted Donald Trump.”

In Florida, GOP gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam recently came under fire for displaying insufficient loyalty to Trump, and a key point against Putnam was his heretical description of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape behavior as “vile and obscene.” Primary opponent Ron DeSantis seized on those comments, hammering Putnam for criticizing Trump “when we were trying to beat Hillary Clinton.”

In Alabama, GOP Rep. Martha Roby labored feverishly to make amends to Republican voters for the fact that she turned her back on Trump and condemned his behavior on the “Access Hollywood” tape as “unacceptable.” Roby’s apostasy helped force her into a primary runoff, which she ultimately won (but with Trump’s endorsement).

The ultimate betrayal

In most of these cases, the offending act was not merely a personal betrayal of Trump. More precisely, the offending act was to display weakness — in the face of widespread moral condemnation of Trump’s reprehensible misogynistic boasting over his dalliances into sexual abuse and assault — when the stakes were high enough to demand fortitude in response to that condemnation.

In both ads cited above, the disloyal Republican was condemned for going weak-kneed when the Supreme Court (and with it, long-term conservative priorities) were “on the line.” As the ad from Johnson (who won in Minnesota) noted, it was a mark of him being a true “conservative” that he did not “panic when it matters most.”

Reflecting on Pawlenty’s loss, Post reporter Robert Costa noted that it signals the degree to which Trump has “transformed” the GOP, with the result that above all, GOP voters want “solidarity in grievance.” In a way, you can square this with the idea that deserting Trump in the face of the “Access Hollywood” tape has emerged in some quarters of today’s GOP as a badge of shame. When Trump is under fire in moments like this, the important fact about it is not what Trump did. It’s the liberal media establishment’s agenda in victimizing him for it as part of the broader project of trying to destroy conservatism.

Remember, this is exactly how Stephen K. Bannon, the keeper of the flame of Trumpism, built a new narrative to try to rescue failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore against abuse allegations. As one Bannon ally told Joshua Green at the time, the claims of numerous credible victims of Moore’s alleged sexually predatory behavior actually constituted “a missile launched at the conservative movement by the mainstream media.”

Such trying circumstances separate the weak from those with true mettle and bravery. As the triumphant Jeff Johnson put it, the true conservative does not panic when it matters most.