The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans embrace the ‘cult’ of Trump, ignoring warning signs

In a stunning upset, first-term state lawmaker Katie Arrington unseated incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford, following President Trump's eleventh hour tweet. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Fiercely and undeniably, the Republican Party this week confirmed its rebranding as the party of Trump.

Buoyed by a late Tuesday presidential tweet, voters in South Carolina cast out Rep. Mark Sanford, a firmly conservative member of Congress who had survived earlier scandal, in favor of a state legislator who had condemned Sanford for publicly criticizing the president. In Virginia, Republicans nominated for senator a Trump-like candidate with a history of embracing, as the president has, Confederate symbols and white nationalists.

The week was marked by continued deference to Trump on the part of congressional leaders who have swallowed the president’s upending of long-standing party views on several major issues. Legislative efforts by some in the party to wrest trade authority back from Trump and rewrite the nation’s immigration laws in ways he has opposed both fell in defeat.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on June 13 that the GOP is experiencing a 'cult-like situation' in its refusal to stand up to President Trump. (Video: Reuters)

Meanwhile, many in the party who in the past have opposed talks with North Korea’s leader this week praised Trump for his summit with Kim Jong Un.

As a result, the Republican Party appears united now not by fealty to ideas or policies but to a man, one who defied the odds to win the presidency and who has magnetically drawn the party’s power bases to himself.

“It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters Wednesday morning. “It’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cultlike situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of — purportedly — of the same party.”

The president has expanded his power throughout the Republican political firmament in an unexpectedly broad way, given his narrow 2016 victory after a campaign filled with internal party drama.

His social media habits have commanded the airwaves and obliterated any efforts by Republicans or Democrats alike to change the subject.

His hotel, down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has become the requisite gathering place for Republican groups, political donors and foreign visitors, a visual and, for the president, financially rewarding symbol of demonstrated loyalty.

Driving it all has been the sentiment of Republican voters, who have swiftly adopted the president’s issue positions and looked the other way at a progression of missteps and conflicts that would have doomed prior presidents.

Despite misgivings about Trump’s behavior, Republican voters have rewarded him with support unmatched by a Republican president since George W. Bush’s tenure in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And they have rained down punishment on those who disagree with Trump.

Corker is a member of the sole group of Republicans on Capitol Hill comfortable with criticizing the president: those who have decided to leave office, either voluntarily or with a push from Trump and his allies.

Earlier this week, after Trump threatened a trade war with Canada, one of the nation’s strongest allies, Corker had been pushing the legislation to reduce the president’s power to set tariffs.

Its defeat, along with that of the immigration legislation pushed by moderate Republicans, reflected the sentiment of voters: They want the party to stand by the president, and it is pointless to resist.

“I think people who lock horns with the president need to understand what the limits are in terms of their ability to win elections,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “At this point, he’s the leader of our party, and I think in order for our country to be successful, I think we ought to try to support him and his policies when we think he’s right.”

Yet even if that decision is the only rational way forward for ambitious Republicans, it is also fraught with danger.

Trump’s Tuesday afternoon endorsement of Katie Arrington, a U.S. House candidate in South Carolina, may have contributed to her victory over Sanford, a longtime Trump nemesis. But his endorsement of other candidates — such as Alabama’s appointed Sen. Luther Strange or Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie — did little to improve their standing and may have contributed to their defeats.

Republicans face a conflict in five months because most of the races that will determine control of the House are being fought in suburban districts, filled with women and independent voters who have been less in thrall to Trump than have elected officials and strongly Republican voters.

Already in Virginia, outside fundraising groups have backed away from embracing the controversial new U.S. Senate nominee, Corey A. Stewart. But Stewart, strongly supported by Trump, remains on the ballot, and his presence there threatens to diminish the turnout levels Republicans need to hit to hold on to several suburban House seats amid rampant Democratic enthusiasm.

Trump remains the party’s biggest draw, but voters are enthused about him more than the party’s other candidates, made paler by comparison with the president.

“The American people are closer to presidents than they are to local elected officials because they know more about them,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Trump’s closest allies have largely dismissed the “cult” commentary, as Corker put it, as evidence of cultural and class tension inside the Beltway.

“They keep saying the cult stuff because they don’t like the disruption and change,” said former White House communications director and financier Anthony Scaramucci. “He doesn’t speak with an elitist vocabulary and the savoir faire that Washingtonians are used to,” referring to Trump.

Disruption works both ways, however, and is no guarantee of success in midterm elections, which are often perilous to a president.

Last week, after White House adviser Kellyanne Conway boasted that the president had the same approval rating as Barack Obama at the same point in his presidency, Democrats pointed to the results in 2010 — a landslide defeat for Obama’s party in the midterm elections.

“I don’t think we, or any president, demanded personal loyalty to the degree Trump has,” said David Axelrod, an Obama adviser during his first campaign and term. “We made appeals around shared goals, ideals and agendas. We didn’t play in primaries. Popular as he was, Obama’s party was not the cult that the GOP is today.”

The results in elections so far show that Trump has one of Obama’s most vexing problems, the inability to transfer power down the ballot.

In Tuesday’s primary elections, even some Republicans who have bound themselves to Trump ran into difficulty.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, whose primary campaign highlighted his alliance with Trump, was forced into a runoff with a business executive who ran as an outsider. Turnout in that race was down by about 25 percent from 2010, the last time the state’s Republicans had a contested gubernatorial primary.

Similar signs of disinterest bedeviled Republicans in other primary states. In Maine, while just 90 percent of precincts had been counted, Republicans were likely to fall roughly 30,000 votes short of their 2010 turnout. In Nevada, roughly 30,000 fewer Republicans voted than in 2010; Adam Laxalt, who tied himself more closely to Trump than to the state’s outgoing Republican governor, had gotten a last-minute Trump endorsement in the gubernatorial race.

In Virginia, Republican turnout was lower than it had been for 2017’s gubernatorial primary; Stewart, who had lost that race with 155,780 votes, won Tuesday’s Senate primary with 136,410 votes.

Still, across the country, more candidates have aligned themselves with Trump than not. In Michigan, two Republican candidates have spent weeks squabbling over how one of them abandoned Trump after the pre-election release of a recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault.

In Minnesota, former governor Tim Pawlenty is seeking a comeback by running against benefits for undocumented immigrants and recanting the criticism he made of Trump after the tape’s release.

“It set my wife off,” Pawlenty told a radio interviewer after entering the race. “I needed to speak to that, and I did. But since then, as he’s been president, he’s outlined policy positions that I agree with — most of them, not all of them.”

Longtime Republican consultant Mike Murphy, a Trump critic who led the super PAC supporting former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid, said the GOP may have to “wait for the election” this fall to finally loosen the president’s grip on the party’s voters and leadership.

“Trump is king, and the party has a suicide pact,” Murphy said. “You would hope we could see it coming, that there is enough evidence with polling and the special election results, or with him coddling dictators. But it’s clear primary voters disagree.”

In Nevada, brothel owner Dennis Hof, the star of a TV show about prostitution and the author of “The Art of the Pimp,” blew past a Republican incumbent to win the nomination for a seat in the state legislature. In an interview, Hof said that Trump “blazed the trail” for him.

“He gave me the confidence that I could do this — I could be a reality TV star, an author and a brothel owner and then be elected to serve,” said Hof. “I want to keep the stuff that the president’s got going. The unemployment rate is as low as it’s been forever. I don’t want sanctuary cities. I want them to build the wall. Let’s tighten all that down.”