Three’s a trend, as all journalists know, and we got our trend after three Republican primaries in early June. Martha Roby, a congresswoman from Alabama who had withdrawn her endorsement of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced in October 2016, failed to clear 50 percent and was forced into a runoff. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina congressman who continued to criticize Trump after he became president, lost his race a few hours after Trump tweeted against him. And Corey Stewart, a Virginia politician whom the Trump campaign fired for excessive zeal, won the Senate primary to take on Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine.
For most Republican politicians, the message was clear: It’s Trump’s party now. The New York Times ran the headline “Republicans in Primaries Absorb Lesson: Cross Trump at Their Peril.” Other news outlets published similar stories. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), who declined to run for reelection in part because of his conflict with Trump and Trump supporters in his state, said that the party had become “cultish” in its devotion to the president.
The claim that the Republican party is now a cult of personality has several elements, and different tellers of the tale place different emphases: Trump has remade the party in his image; he and his supporters are intolerant of dissent and criticism; and Republicans who seek political success must sing his praises, adopt his positions, and ape his style. David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama, told the Times, “I don’t think we, or any president, demanded personal loyalty to the degree Trump has.”
There is some truth in all of these contentions. Trump has indeed changed the outlook of the party. Polls suggest that Republican views on trade, for example, have shifted dramatically since he entered the presidential race. So have the views of white Evangelical-Christian conservatives, a very large proportion of Republican voters, on the importance of a politician’s moral character. Trump has some supporters who are willing to justify or excuse anything he does. (The extent to which this kind of devotion differentiates him from other politicians is a question I’ll leave to another article.)
It is true, as well, that the vast majority of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance in office and a lot of them are unhappy with Republican officeholders they consider to be at odds with him. This is not an especially mysterious situation: Trump has delivered on some key conservative priorities, has tried to deliver on others, and is presiding over a strong economy. Republican voters have also come to see Democratic and media criticism of a Republican politician — especially criticism of him as a racist, authoritarian, or dolt — as par for the course, perhaps even a sign that the Republican is doing something right.
Yet the notion that Republicans are a thoroughly Trumpified party, in which every ambitious member must be painstakingly careful to stay on the same page as the president, is an exaggeration.
It’s worth noting, first, that Trump has imposed a less stringent loyalty test on members of his party than most presidents have. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama would have included in his cabinet someone who said that he does not represent his party or deserve its trust, or someone else who called him a “cancer” and a “barking carnival act.” Trump has.
Republican voters have not moved in lockstep with Trump. He endorsed Representative Renee Ellmers in North Carolina, and she lost her primary. He endorsed Senator Luther Strange in Alabama, and he lost his. Then he supported the primary victor, Roy Moore, who lost the general election, falling vastly short of the typical Republican performance in the state.
Nor have Trump-supporting Republican voters imposed a veto on candidates who have criticized the president. Dan Crenshaw blasted Trump for “insane rhetoric” in 2015, and his opponent in a U.S. House race in Texas this year kept reminding voters of it. Crenshaw won 70 to 30 percent.
While Sanford cited Trump’s tweet as the reason he lost, and may be right to do so, other factors complicate the picture. His victorious opponent, Katie Arrington, had been critical of Trump herself in 2016. And Sanford had weaknesses unrelated to Trump. Arrington frequently alluded to an extramarital affair of his that made national news when he was governor of South Carolina. His primary opponent in the last election, before Trump’s presidency, held him below 56 percent of the vote. (He lost nine points between the two elections.) The sitting governor, Henry McMaster, was an early Trump supporter and, like Roby in Alabama, he got less than 50 percent in his primary and faces a runoff.
Another way of measuring Trump’s grip on the party is by looking at how many voters approve “strongly” and “somewhat” of his job performance. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll shows 25 percent in the first camp and 15 percent in the second. In August 2006, when President Bush had the same overall approval rating in that poll that Trump has now, his numbers were comparable: Bush had 23 percent who strongly approved of him and 17 percent who moderately approved.
Trump’s hold on the congressional party, meanwhile, is weaker than Bush’s was. Fourteen out of 50 Republican senators who voted on Trump’s preferred immigration bill in February voted no. At the moment, at least, none of them seems to be in any political trouble as a result. Senator Rand Paul voted against Trump on that issue and on health care, and has repeatedly raised objections to his nominees for national-security positions. It does not seem to have markedly hurt his relationship with Trump himself, let alone with the president’s many supporters in Kentucky.
Most congressional Republicans have criticized the import taxes that Trump has imposed or threatened to impose. It is true that they have not advanced legislation to undo or prevent those tariffs, but that failure has as much to do with the difficulty of getting the necessary two-thirds support in each chamber of Congress to override a veto as with fear of crossing Trump.
Trump also has weaker support inside his administration, and even inside his White House, than most presidents do. Many administration officials feel free to disregard his stated wishes and — something that practically never happened under his two predecessors — speak contemptuously, albeit anonymously, about him to reporters.
There’s a conflict between two common narratives about Trump and Republicans. The president’s strongest supporters don’t, of course, think of themselves as cultish in any way. They also don’t see themselves having complete control of the party. What they see, instead, is a party in which top officials are not backing Trump as fully as parties usually back allied presidents. That perception of ambivalence is accurate.
People who think the Republican party has become another Trump property have implicitly adopted a different perspective. They think that Trump deserves Republican support less than Bush deserved it, and they are comparing the backing he actually enjoys with an imagined baseline of resistance. Their normative judgments are blinding them to the truth that neither Republican officials nor Republican voters are, as groups, being especially slavish toward Trump.
There is another sort of perspective worth keeping in mind. Bush had nearly uniform support from Republican officials when he took office, came to have stratospheric support from voters in general following the September 11 attacks, and won reelection with the only absolute majority of the vote Republicans have received since the end of the Cold War. Yet his attempts to change the party’s philosophy — so that it would be welcoming to immigrants, support government activism for the poor, advance a multiracial social conservatism, and assiduously promote liberal-democratic values worldwide — nonetheless failed, disappearing without much of a trace soon after his presidency ended.
Trump could, of course, enjoy more success. But his grip on the party, whatever its strength, could prove just as temporary.