There was a time not so long ago when the political establishment of the Republican Party – the Mitt Romneys, Paul Ryans, and Lindsey Grahams of the world – were strong Donald Trump antagonists. Trump would utter a racially charged remark about a Mexican-American district court judge being biased against him because he was Mexican, and Speaker Ryan would blast the comment as ‘the definition of a racist comment’. Lindsey Graham, an also-ran in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, acted like a South Carolina preacher with a southern drawl, warning Republican voters of how dangerous Trump would be as Commander-in-Chief. When the infamous Access Hollywood rape surfaced three weeks before the 2016 election, Paul Ryan threw up his hands and told fellow Republican lawmakers that he would no longer campaign for Trump. For a Republican Speaker of the House – third-in-line to the presidency – not to campaign for a Republican presidential nominee was unprecedented.
Those days are long gone. Lindsey Graham has gone from a Jack Russel terrier nipping at Trump’s heels to one of Trump’s buddies on the golf course. Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is more than happy to share a camera with the president, speaking as if the former real estate magnate could be one of America’s best presidents.
As evidenced last week with the release of a spurious and partisan-tainted memo alleging FBI surveillance abuses against a former Trump campaign adviser, the Republican Party is now beholden to Trump’s wants and desires. The House Intelligence Committee, a committee that is historically one of the most serious, studious, diligent, and non-partisan in the U.S. Congress, is not only doing the bidding of a president by clearing documents that America’s own intelligence agencies lobbied against; they are also taking the White House narrative of a conspiracy theory and running with it. It appears that the days when establishment Republican lawmakers would run for the hills whenever Trump opened his mouth is now a thing of the past. Many are now squarely on the Trump Train, mindlessly peddling whatever conspiratorial nonsense Sean Hannity broadcasts on his show.
To be fair, there are exceptions. Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker come to mind. All three have had intense run-in’s with Trump in the past. Corker, one of the more pragmatic GOP’ers in the Senate, has used his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee to hold several hearings on a president’s power to launch a nuclear weapon with minimal restraints (subtext: Trump and nukes are a bad combination). Flake has delivered speeches on the Senate floor begging the nation to wake up and defend the First Amendment from a White House that attacks journalists and decried inconvenient facts as ‘fake news’. So concerned is McCain about the state of American democracy that he refuses to let chemotherapy keep him out of the action.
McCain, Flake, and Corker, however, are political lemmings at this point. McCain’s health may force him to retire, a decision Flake and Corker have already made. No other Republican in either the House or the Senate has chosen to go against the Trump grain; they are either terrified of being primaried by a Trump loyalist or concerned about the inevitable fiery blowback Trump would unleash regardless of how marginal the opposition is. Trump is the fire-breathing dragon that no Republican running for re-election this fall wants to poke.
Dan Balz of the Washington Post summed it up best in a column this weekend. ‘What once seemed unlikely is now reality. The Republican establishment — there are a few dissenting voices, of course — has succumbed to the power of the presidency,’ Balz wrote, ‘and this president in particular.’
The GOP is now the Party of Trump. And the Never Trumpers are fast losing politicians who have the seniority, gravitas, and national name recognition to forcefully stand up to the president on even the most basic issues – whether it’s defending the ability of journalists to do their jobs free from abuse and harassment or defending the FBI from being pulled into the political quick sand.