by The Editorial Board
Forget policy. Forget ideology. Forget hating Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. From Indiana to Arizona to Ohio, the name of the game for Republican candidates this primary cycle has been to flaunt their Trump love. And woe unto anyone deemed insufficiently smitten.
This week’s primary elections underscored the striking degree to which President Trump has transformed the Republican Party from a political organization into a cult of personality. By contrast, Democrats show signs of taking a more pluralistic approach, fielding candidates who are willing and even eager to break with their national leaders — the House minority leader, Ms. Pelosi, in particular.
For Republicans tempted by Trump apostasy, Tuesday’s clearest cautionary tale was that of Representative Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican. Two years ago, Ms. Roby was considered a real comer. But then she got all squeamish about the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Mr. Trump shared some of his more pungent dating tips, and she called on him to leave the race.
Unfortunately for Ms. Roby, her district ultimately went for Mr. Trump by 32 percentage points. And although she has been a loyal Trump supporter ever since his win, many voters back home are still sore about her brief heresy. Throughout this primary season, Ms. Roby’s Republican opponents were quick to bring up her 2016 comments, and come Tuesday, the congresswoman failed to win the nomination outright. She’s now facing a runoff next month against former Representative Bobby Bright, who ran ads accusing her of having “turned her back on President Trump when he needed her the most.” (Mr. Bright is the party-switching former Democrat from whom Ms. Roby wrested her House seat in 2010.)
On the opposite end of the Trump-impact spectrum is John Cox, a Republican businessman running for governor of California. With registered Republicans down to 25 percent of the Golden State electorate (putting them slightly behind independent voters), the party is as likely to capture the governorship this year as Jeff Sessions is to be the next head of the American Civil Liberties Union. Nonetheless, Republicans needed a candidate at the top of the ticket to increase turnout for all the down-ballot House seats they’re fighting over. With the state’s wacky primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, that was hardly a given. (A longtime senator, Dianne Feinstein, will be facing a fellow Democrat.) But late in the race, Mr. Trump came out strongly for Mr. Cox, tweeting his praises, energizing the troops and propelling him to a solid second place behind Gavin Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor.
It is, of course, not unusual for presidents to have political coattails — and for the party wandering in the wilderness to show greater openness to new ideas and new kinds of candidates. The Democratic approach may be more a function of default (or desperation) than design, but Ms. Pelosi still deserves props for not seeking to kneecap candidates, like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania and Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, who have said they would not support her as speaker. With a bit of luck, genuine ferment and debate among Democratic candidates and officeholders over the right direction on issues like trade and immigration might result in at least one party oriented around a set of ideas.
Assuming that American democracy endures, a party organized around a single extreme personality seems like a brittle proposition. But Mr. Trump’s grip on the Republican psyche is unusually powerful by historical standards, because it is about so much more than electoral dynamics. Through his demagogic command of the party’s base, he has emerged as the shameless, trash-talking, lib-owning fulcrum around which the entire enterprise revolves.
Forget the longstanding Republican orthodoxy about the wonders of free trade. If Mr. Trump says tariffs are the way to go, his base is good with that. Even Republican lawmakers who fear a trade war seem disinclined to push very hard to prevent one. (Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has dismissed proposed legislation aimed at curbing the president’s tariff fever as an “exercise in futility.”)
As for any misbehavior uncovered by the Russia inquiry, Republican voters are having none of it. If Mr. Trump says it’s all part of a deep state plot, that’s good enough for them. Three-quarters of Republicans embrace his claim that the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
The bulk of Republican lawmakers, even those who find Mr. Trump appalling, are increasingly loath to cross him — at least in public. In April, the conservative commentator Erick Erickson recounted in graphic detail his conversation with a G.O.P. congressman who, while publicly Trump-philic, fulminated obscenely off the record about the president.
Such timidity is hardly surprising. Mr. Trump’s favorability rating among Republicans is at 87 percent — the second-highest rating within a president’s party at an administration’s 500-day mark since World War II. (George W. Bush was slightly higher following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.) The absence of Republican criticism of Mr. Trump, in turn, serves to reinforce his popularity, creating a cycle cravenness that has now made it risky for even the staunchest of conservatives to question Mr. Trump.
Every now and again, someone sticks a neck out. Consider poor Representative Trey Gowdy. In 2015, the South Carolina Republican became a conservative darling as head of the House’s Benghazi inquiry. But last week, Mr. Gowdy, now chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, went on television and undercut the Spygate conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump has been peddling so vigorously. Mr. Gowdy not only batted down the term “spy,” but dared to defend the F.B.I. Quicker than you can say “collusion,” the congressman got dog-piled by Trump fans in the conservative media. On the heels of Mr. Gowdy, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, ventured forth this week with his own questioning of the Spygate fantasy. This may well signal growing unease among congressional Republicans with Mr. Trump’s conspiracy mongering. On the other hand, it’s probably not coincidental that Mr. Gowdy and Mr. Ryan have both announced they are retiring at the end of this term.
A week ago, John Boehner, the former House speaker, neatly captured the state of his party during a policy conference in Michigan. “There is no Republican Party,” he told the crowd. “There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
Sounds peaceful. But where will the party, not to mention the country, be when it finally wakes up?