Opinion | Why Trump Is the Republican Establishment
It was almost 15 months ago that The New York Post published a full-page cover photo of Ron DeSantis with the headline “DeFUTURE.” His 19-point victory in the Florida governor’s race was one of the few bright spots of the 2022 elections for a weary Republican elite, which was desperately looking to move on from Donald Trump after his handpicked candidates cost the party key Senate seats.
A year later, as Mr. DeSantis’s presidential campaign stalled, at least a handful of G.O.P. megadonors found new hope in Nikki Haley, with the Koch network announcing millions of dollars in support of her presidential campaign.
It would be fair to say that the project has fallen flat: Mr. DeSantis suspended his presidential campaign on Jan. 21, and Ms. Haley’s hopes have now dwindled to a thin thread after her loss in New Hampshire.
By Donald Trump and his allies, this primary will be portrayed as a victory over a Republican establishment with which he had been at odds for years. But although Mr. Trump has routinely positioned himself as a political outsider, it is clear — now more than ever — that he has become the Republican establishment, and the party’s fate increasingly seems inextricably tied to his.
The former president now controls the Republican Party by virtually every conceivable measure. He has a commanding lead in fund-raising and polling. His policies are a beacon to which most conservative lawmakers orient themselves in affairs both foreign and domestic. His endorsement remains the single most coveted asset that any Republican could hope to brandish in a primary race, and he has already received support from an overwhelming majority of prominent elected Republicans.
In this election cycle, Mr. Trump has received endorsements from 130 House members and 31 senators, a majority of both Republican caucuses, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. Ms. Haley, his only remaining opponent, has received just one congressional endorsement, from a House member from her home state, South Carolina. Before Mr. DeSantis dropped out, he had collected only five.
The picture is similar among governors, with 11 Republican governors endorsing Mr. Trump, two endorsing Ms. Haley, and two having endorsed Mr. DeSantis before his exit. With Mr. DeSantis immediately backing the former president after dropping out and Senator Mitch McConnell indicating a new willingness to defer to Mr. Trump’s political preferences, only a vestige of organized opposition remains among Republican elected officials and political figures.
Tellingly, that flood of endorsements came far earlier in the race this time around. Less than a month after Mr. DeSantis announced his presidential campaign last May, Mr. Trump had already gathered over 70 endorsements from senators, congressional representatives and governors — more than any other candidate during the entire 2016 primary race.
It wasn’t always like this. In his 2016 bid for the party’s nomination, Mr. Trump initially attracted very little support from elected Republicans, and the “outsider” branding he acquired stuck for a simple reason: It was true.
Unlike virtually all previous Republican presidential nominees, Mr. Trump had neither governmental experience nor any military service and his standing in the party reflected this. On the day of the Iowa caucuses in 2016, he had received no endorsements from any sitting governors, senators or House members. His rivals — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush — had at least 18 each. Even by the time he became the presumptive nominee in May, he had accumulated only 15.
Once elected, he undertook a wholesale remake of the party, one perhaps more sweeping than any other modern president, endorsing candidates aligned with him while quickly punishing those who dared to challenge him. Many former critics, like Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, chose to become steady allies. Others, like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, chose retirement, hollowing out the old guard of the party and eliminating much of the dissent aimed at its new leader.
Gradually, Mr. Trump’s endorsement gathered value and became a de facto requirement for Republican candidates to advance to the general election. This led to some absurd displays of fealty, as in 2018 when Mr. DeSantis styled himself as a “pit bull Trump defender” in a television ad while reading “The Art of the Deal” to his infant son.
To be fair to Mr. DeSantis, he had recognized the power of a Trump endorsement, showcased by the Trump faction’s growing influence within the party. In 2018, just 41 Trump-endorsed candidates won election to Congress. By 2022, this number had risen to 167, as Mr. Trump began to offer his support more frequently, especially for safely Republican seats.
A large majority of the non-incumbent candidates whom Mr. Trump endorsed aligned themselves closely with his favored causes and gave credence to his conspiracy theories. Crucially, these challengers often replaced incumbents with more traditional rhetorical and legislative approaches.
You can see this dynamic at play with the retirements of long-serving Republicans like Rob Portman of Ohio and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who had served in Congress as long ago as the Clinton administration and had worked across the aisle on a long list of domestic and foreign legislative items. In 2022, they were replaced by the Trump loyalists J.D. Vance and Eric Schmitt, who loudly echoed his stolen election claims, unlike their predecessors.
But not everything went Mr. Trump’s way in 2022. He elevated allies like Kari Lake, Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker and Tudor Dixon in primaries for competitive Senate and governor’s races, only to see them go down in defeat. Although his influence is undeniable, Mr. Trump hasn’t earned that stature through a record of winning the biggest races when it counted most. Under him, his party lost the House in 2018 and then the presidency and the Senate in 2020. It couldn’t regain the Senate in 2022, largely because of his chosen candidates.
Mr. Trump has also charted a new policy course for the Republican Party, on immigration above all else. In 2012, the official Republican Party platform argued for a more moderate policy of “strategic immigration, granting more work visas to holders of advanced degrees.” By 2016, the party line had hardened, with an updated version of the platform stating that it was “indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year.”
Mr. Trump’s influence on party policy now extends beyond the traditional proposals pitched by most presidents. Arguably, his most extreme stance concerns the 2020 election, which he repeatedly claims was stolen from him, without evidence.
According to an analysis by The Times, more than 80 percent of Republicans elected to the 118th House cast doubt on the 2020 results during the 2022 midterms, along with 17 of the 20 Republicans who won Senate seats and 13 of 18 Republicans elected to governorships.
Mr. Trump has not hesitated to punish perceived disloyalty, even after he departed office. When the House impeached him for inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6, just 10 Republicans voted in favor. But by the next congressional term, eight of those 10 had left office, either retiring or losing primaries to Trump-endorsed challengers. Tellingly, one of those candidates was Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and the former chair of the House conference (before she was expelled from her leadership post after feuding with Mr. Trump).
It’s not a coincidence that the two survivors (Dan Newhouse of Washington and David Valadao of California) did not have to go through partisan primaries; they narrowly advanced through top-two systems that allowed independents and Democrats to cross over for them.
Mr. Trump’s wing is, by a comfortable margin, the largest and most dominant force in his party. No power center in the Republican Party can exist without the blessing of his movement, and we have yet to see a national political figure who can survive even the slightest bit of conflict with it. If there is any remnant of a pre-Trump Republican establishment, the trajectories of the campaigns headed by Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis illustrate its imminent fate.
Graphics by Taylor Maggiacomo and Gus Wezerek.
Source photographs by The New York Times.
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