The level of loyalty Donald Trump commands from elected Republicans seems qualitatively different from that offered to previous Republican presidents.
For instance: Republicans told President Nixon to resign his office. Ronald Reagan ran a vigorous primary challenge to President Ford. President George H.W. Bush was seriously challenged in the 1992 primary. President George W. Bush faced Republican revolts over a Supreme Court nomination, Medicare expansion, and attempted immigration reform.
President Trump’s policy ideas often diverge dramatically from Republican orthodoxy—on trade, executive authority, entitlements, foreign policy—and his almost daily drumbeat of scandals and misadventures have been a millstone around the party’s neck. He won the presidency despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin; lost the House in 2018; has been historically unpopular; and has been trailing his most likely Democratic 2020 rival by double digits for the better part of a year. He is now facing the prospect of impeachment.
If the normal laws of politics applied to Trump, this would be about the time that Republicans decided to cut and run.
But that isn’t happening.
There are four explanations as to why this is and they all add up to the fact that where previous presidents have been stewards of the party, Trump owns the GOP in a way that is unprecedented in the modern era.
In the Republican party, Trump is forever.
(1) The tipping point came early. A common fallacy of the Trump years has been that the tipping point is always close: That there is some action or event, just over the horizon, that will cause Republicans to finally abandon him once they understand the full costs.
Instead, the Republican party establishment seems rather more supportive of Trump today than it was in January 2017.
Which suggests that maybe there was a tipping point, but that it went in the other direction and it came early in his tenure.
I would posit that in late 2018, after the scope of the midterm losses became clear, two things happened. First, the casualties of the midterm were precisely the Republicans who were most likely to rebel against Trump, so while the GOP lost the midterms, Trump emerged with a stronger hold on the party.
Second, with the midterm loss, Republicans tipped over into a place where the sunk costs were so great that they were no longer willing to challenge him on any matter.
And with every passing scandal since then, the cumulative weight of these sunk costs has made independence from Trump less, not more, likely. Because while the doctrine of sunk costs is a fallacy for economic actors, it’s very real for political actors.
(2) Trump primarily uses his political capital against other Republicans. One of the strange inversions of the Trump years is that unlike every other president of the modern era, Trump has treated his own party as his principal opposition.
Normally presidents endure intraparty griping because they need the votes. They don’t want to spend political capital fighting their own party because they need to conserve it to fight with the other side in order to win passage for legislative initiatives.
Trump has turned that dynamic on its head.
From the time he declared his candidacy, Trump has focused most of his attacks on other Republicans. Yes, he takes the obligatory shots at Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff. And there was his “go back” to where you came from attack on “the squad.” But Trump’s real passion seems to be fighting Republicans whom he deems insufficiently loyal.
So while Democrats have literally no reason to fear Trump—he has been so helpful to their electoral prospects that they have more to fear from working with him than opposing him—it is Republicans who have come to fear crossing their president.
This is an unusual situation.
The benefit of this arrangement for Trump is that by keeping a constant threat of retribution leveled against fellow Republicans, his party has fallen in line to a truly unprecedented degree. The cost is that, by spending so much time warring with Republicans he has weakened his party’s standing, frittered away his congressional majority, and seen nearly his entire legislative agenda stall.
In a normal presidency, this price might be seen as prohibitively high. But in a presidency that’s been in constant turmoil—veering from crisis to crisis and now climaxing with impeachment—it’s a bargain at twice the price. The grim reality is that Trump needs Republican solidarity much more than he needs legislative accomplishments.
And also, if we’re going to be candid, he has never seemed terribly interested in passing legislation in the first place.
(3) Trump is forever. In the normal course of the last century, the president has been only the interim head of his party. He appoints his people throughout both his administration and the institution of his party, but eventually he leaves office and retires to life outside the public realm. At that point, he may still exert some influence behind the scenes. He may be close to donors. His mentees might still consult his advice. But other political actors are jockeying for position; the world moves on.
It seems highly unlikely that Donald Trump will ever move on.
Either a year from now or five years from now, Donald Trump will step away from the presidency. Raise your hand if you think he will retire to Mar-a-Lago and delete his Twitter account.
It seems much more likely—maybe inevitable—that once he leaves office, Trump will continue to tweet and call in to cable news shows. Perhaps he will even attend political rallies, which is the part of the job he seems to enjoy most.
There is no reason to think—none at all—that he will discontinue his penchant for weighing in on American politics on an hourly basis. There is every reason to think that he will vigorously attack any Republican who was disloyal to him during his administration. Or retroactively criticizes his tenure. Or runs in opposition to one of his preferred candidates. Or jeopardizes any of his many and varied interests.
What this means is that there is no way for a Trump-skeptical Republican to simply wait out the Trump years. There will be no “life after Trump” because Trump is going to be the head boss of Republican politics for the rest of his days.
As I said at the beginning: Trump is not a caretaker of the Republican party. He is the owner.
Once you realize that Trump is forever, it’s easier to understand individual Republicans’ reluctance to stand against him on impeachment. If you’re a Republican with future political ambitions—even if you’re retiring from public life for the moment—you know that voting against Trump now means that he will come after you when you try to re-enter politics.
(4) There is another. The corollary to the idea that Trump is forever is the fact that he clearly has dynastic aspirations. Early on people suspected that Ivanka Trump would one day try to take over for her father. But the last three years have shown that Don Jr. is his logical heir.
Where Ivanka thought it smart to work in the White House and enmesh herself in governing, Don. Jr. understood that the real path to power was to go on Fox News and imitate his father. It’s working.
And if you think Trump will retire to the countryside to let his children make their own way in the world, then you have not paid any attention, at all, to the history of this family.
Hard-headed Trump-skeptical Republicans like to talk about how it’s important to preserve some room to maneuver so that when Trump eventually leaves the stage, the hard work of rebuilding the Republican party can begin.
I understand that sentiment. It sounds prudent. It might even be right.
But that view is predicated on the realities of politics as they existed in 2015.
Until Trump’s election, the working model for American politics was that parties were ideological organizations, not personality cults, and that ex-presidents were seldom seen and never heard.
The post-Trump future may be different: A world where the former president calls into cable shows while tweeting 150 times a day, settling scores, attacking members of his party who he deems insufficiently loyal and paving the way for his son to inherit the office.
If you think about the nature of political parties, the Trumpian view makes a certain amount of sense and what’s remarkable is that the old system lasted for as long as it did. Why is it, exactly, that former presidents have not chosen to actively maintain a grip on their political parties?
The only real explanations for the view of presidents as political stewards are humility, tradition, honor. Even Trump’s most eager apologists would never ascribe any of those traits to him. Why would he think himself constrained by such outmoded thinking?
Why would he voluntarily give up a thing of immense value?
When you look at Trump’s administration it is clear that he sees the GOP not as a political party which exists as a vehicle to execute policy visions, but an asset. And assets exist to be controlled and passed down to one’s heirs.
In such a world, the Republican party is a kingdom and GOP politicians are mere feudal lords who may only set up their own fiefdoms at the pleasure of the sovereign. Or, if you’d prefer a less benign metaphor, the Republican party is now a family-controlled syndicate which will run the business until either a rival gang takes them down or the feds catch up with them.
Whichever view you choose, the arrangement will continue as long as Donald Trump has thumbs and a smartphone.
Once you understand what the future of the Republican party must necessarily look like, the present makes a lot more sense.