How Donald Trump Conquered the GOP: Donald Trump’s rise within, and subsequent takeover of, the GOP was a uniquely comprehensive political conquest.
When Trump first declared his candidacy in the 2016 GOP primary, he was dismissed as a joke.
Established GOP figures, like Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and Paul Ryan, took one sideways glance at Trump – noted his orange skin, hanging gut, grating accent, and complete void of political experience – and discredited him out of hand.
Who did this guy think he was? Donald Trump was out of his depth in a crowded GOP field, they said; he was burning up valuable airtime and headline space from actually viable candidates – guys like Marco Rubio, poised to help the GOP compete with the Democrats for the increasingly crucial Hispanic vote, or John Kasich, a broadly appealing midwestern moderate, or even the favored upstart, the soft-spoken and cerebral Ben Carson. Besides, everyone knew it was Jeb Bush’s turn– he was next in line to inherit the presidency, after waiting patiently for the Bush succession.
So, the GOP field-at-large denounced Donald Trump, vocally, forcefully, and unequivocally – so as to signal clearly to the general population: Trump is not representative of us or our values.
The GOP Begins to Shift: Christie the Coward
The general public, on the other hand, the people who actually determine election outcomes, felt that Trump was absolutely representative of their values. The GOP, lulled to sleep through decades of complacent, predetermined power transfers, had miscalculated Trump’s appeal.
Heartland America loved him.
As Donald Trump gained traction in the primary, the criticisms that establishment figures had heaped on Trump – criticisms that seemed politically prescient at the moment – were suddenly threatening to become a political liability.
The first sign of what was coming, the trembling capitulations, was Chris Christie’s about-face. Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, was once considered a star of the GOP; he entered the GOP primaries with considerably more legitimacy than Trump. Accordingly, Christie warned voters eyeing Trump that the election was not a “game.” “We do not need reality TV in the Oval Office right now,” Christie said, “President of the United States is not a place for an entertainer.” Trump was like a “13-year-old” who “sits in his jammies in Trump Tower,” Christie said. “I just don’t think that he’s suited to be president.”
When Christie dropped out of the 2016 primary, he shocked the GOP establishment, endorsing Trump for president with a glowing review. “I am proud to be here to endorse Donald Trump for president of the United States,” Christie said. “I’m happy to be on the Trump team, and I look forward to working with him.”
Christie was a coward, clearly. But he recognized, before the GOP establishment – and well before the experts at CNN – that Donald Trump was a real-deal contender. And Christie may have sensed, intuitively, from years operating on Trump’s New York turf, that once in power, Trump would eviscerate anyone who did not fully capitulate. So, Christie entirely capitulated.
Since then, he has jumped on the Trump Train and back off.
Ted Cruz Jumps on the Trump Train
The last man standing against Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, the last establishment bulwark against a Donald Trump presidency, was Ted Cruz.
Understandably, Cruz was tactically critical of Trump. Cruz, during one memorable news conference, called Trump “utterly amoral,” a “serial philanderer,” a “pathological liar,” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.”
The venom with which Cruz attacked Trump was distinct – and almost certainly personally motivated; Trump had criticized first Cruz’s father and then Cruz’s wife. According to Trump, Cruz’s father was “with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s, you know, being shot.” Perhaps more insulting still, Trump also retweeted a picture implying that his wife, ex-model Melania, was more attractive than Cruz’s wife, Heidi.
The moment Cruz capitulated to Trump, bending a knee and kissing the ring, it was clearly over; the GOP was Trump’s. Donald Trump had called Cruz’s wife ugly; Trump had accused Cruz’s father of assisting in the greatest conspiracy in the entire 20th century. And still, Cruz – a sitting US Senator and once-GOP-kingpin – tucked his tail between his legs and pledged fealty. “After many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience, I have decided that on Election Day, I will vote for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump,” Cruz said in a statement released to The Texas Tribune.
Cruz then rationalized his decision. “Our country is in crisis. Hillary Clinton is manifestly unfit to be president, and her policies would harm millions of Americans. And Donald Trump is the only thing standing in her way.” Rationalizations aside, Cruz’s submission was epic – making him perhaps the political world’s biggest wuss – while ushering in the GOP’s Trump era.
Enter Lindsay Graham
Once Trump assumed control of the GOP, he demanded absolute loyalty. Rather than stand up to Donald Trump – and face existential consequences – Republican leaders mostly got in line; many with shameful, hard-to-watch-I’m-embarrassed-for-you cowardice.
Like Lindsay Graham. The former Air Force JAG officer turned Senator from South Carolina was once a vocal critic of Trump. “Any doubt left Trump is completely unhinged?” Graham once tweeted. “We should have basically kicked [Trump] out of the party,” Graham said. “The more you know about Donald Trump, the less likely you are to vote for him. The more you know about his business enterprises, the less successful he looks. The more you know about his political giving, the less Republican he looks.”
Back in 2016, Graham regularly harangued Trump, referring to the real-estate mogul as a “*******,” “kook,” “race-baiting bigot,” and “the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican Party.” Yet, once Trump assumed the Republican nomination, Graham became one of his most loyal foot soldiers. Here’s Graham in 2017, quivering in devotion: “What concerns me about the American press is the endless, endless attempt to label [Trump] as some kind of kook not fit to be president. It’s pretty frustrating for most Republicans, quite frankly, that it’s a 24/7 attack on everything [Trump] does or thinks. It gets a little old after awhile.”
Okay, Lindsay. Wow, how much has changed.
Elise Stefanik Changes Her Tune
Examples of similar behavior are easy to find. Representative Elise Stefanik criticized Trump during 2016 for his “comments about Muslims and women,” and “his signature policy positions, such as reforming NATO, building a US-Mexico border wall and having stronger cooperation with Russia.” Stefanik was very clear with respect to Trump: “I think we should expect more substance out of our candidates.”
When Trump was elected Stefanik quickly got to work revising her position. “The energy was just palpable. Anyone on the ground or who was knocking on doors, talking to voters, understood that it was going to be a historic election,” Stefanik said in reference to 2016. “The media didn’t get it. The establishment didn’t get it.” Stefanik got it, apparently. “I was proud to be a part of it. And I was proud to be on that ticket and to win by a huge, huge margin as well as President Trump’s huge double-digit victory in my district.”
Rick Perry: A Donald Trump Supporter
Former Texas governor Rick Perry called Trump’s campaign a “cancer on conservatism” “that will lead the Republican Party to perdition.”
You know where I’m going with this. When Donald Trump emerged as the front-runner, Perry endorsed the carcinogenic candidate. “[Trump] is not a perfect man,” Perry told CNN. “But what I do believe is that he loves this country and he will surround himself with capable, experienced people and he will listen to them.”
Perry wasn’t just trying to save his career – he was trying to join the ticket with Trump, as the vice presidential nominee. Ultimately, Perry was named Trump’s Secretary of Energy, demonstrating that fealty could have its rewards.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.