Republican Party Sinks Deep Into Trump World

Heather Cox Richardson

Amidst the Republican meltdown in Washington, a disturbing pattern is emerging. 

Under pressure from former president Donald Trump, Republican senators today killed the $118 billion Emergency National Security Supplemental Appropriations Act that provided funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan and humanitarian assistance for Gaza and also included protections for the border that Republicans themselves had demanded. 

Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), one of the team of senators who had negotiated the bill, called out the Republicans who had staged photo ops at the border and insisted that Congress must address the rise in migration across the border… until Trump told them the opposite: “After all those trips to the desert, after all those press conferences, it turns out this crisis isn’t much of a crisis after all. Sunday morning, it’s a real crisis,” she said. “Monday morning it magically disappeared.”

After four months of Senate negotiations over the bill produced a strong bipartisan agreement, Trump pulled the rug out from under a measure that gave the Republicans much of what they wanted, partly because he wanted the issue of immigration and the border to run on in 2024, it seems, but also to demonstrate that he could command Congress to do his bidding.

It appears that Trump is trying to turn the Republican Party into an instrument he can use as he wishes.  

Senator James Lankford (R-OK), whom Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tapped to negotiate the bill, today told the Senate that four weeks ago a right-wing media personality had told him “flat out—before they knew any of the contents of the bill, any of the content, nothing was out at that point—that told me flat out, ‘If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you, because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election.’” 

Lankford added, “[They] have been faithful to their promise and have done everything they can to destroy me in the past several weeks.” (MAGA radio host Jesse Kelly later claimed he was the person to whom Lankford referred, and called the Oklahoma senator a “eunuch.”)

It is not a normal part of our political system to have members of Congress deciding what laws to support on the basis of threats. 

In Politico today, Burgess Everett reported that Trump-aligned MAGA Republican senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) are calling for McConnell to step down because he backed the national security measure with the border fixes MAGA demanded, suggesting that negotiating with Democrats is off-limits. Trump has consistently called for McConnell to be replaced with someone friendlier to him. 

Senators aligned with Trump—Ron Johnson (R-WI), Rick Scott (R-FL), and J.D. Vance (R-OH), as well as Cruz and Lee—took a stand against the national security measure, creating such pressure that McConnell’s supporters quietly turned against it. Everett noted that the rapid about-face Senate Republicans made over the national security measure “is evidence of a major drift away from McConnell’s style of Republicanism and toward Trump’s.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said, “I have a difficult time understanding again how anyone else in the future is going to want to be on that negotiating team—on anything—if we are going to be against it.” She said: “I’ve gone through the multiple stages of grief. Today I’m just pissed off.”

Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is showing as well in his attempt to take over the Republican National Committee, in particular a plan to replace as its chair his hand-picked loyalist Ronna McDaniel, who has ties to the old party, with someone even closer to him. Since 2016, “[t]hey’ve merged the DNA of the president’s campaign and the RNC,” a Republican operative told Matt Dixon, Olympia Sonnier, and Katherine Doyle of NBC News.

Josh Dawsey and Michael Scherer reported yesterday in the Washington Post that Republicans are afraid to stand up to Trump out of fear that he will retaliate against them. In Politicotoday, Peder Schaefer described how in Republican-dominated Wyoming, Democrats are afraid to admit their political affiliation out of concern for their safety. 

Yesterday, Politico’s Adam Wren pointed out that Trump has spent much of the last week attacking elections officials in Indiana for helping former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is running against him for the Republican presidential nomination. He is apparently working with loyalist Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) to push the lie that Haley had forgotten to fill out the paperwork to get onto the Republican primary ballot and that election officials were cheating to get her onto it.

Officials say that these baseless accusations are an attempt to sow distrust of the 2024 election. 

“Trump is reinforcing a narrative where the only acceptable outcome is his victory, thus preemptively delegitimizing any electoral defeat,” Evansville attorney and former Indiana Republican delegate Joshua Claybourn told Wren. “It sets the stage for yet another crisis of legitimacy in the November general election.”

Mike Murphy, a former Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives, offered Wren a different theory about Trump’s actions: “The bottom line is he’s completely unhinged. He is literally off his rocker.”

But there is a method behind the madness. Trump’s actions are not those designed to win an election by getting a majority of the votes. They are the tools someone who cannot win a majority uses to seize power. 

Trump’s base is shrinking as his actions become more extreme, but he has a big megaphone, and it is getting bigger. As Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova pointed out in the Washington Posttoday, Putin’s awarding of an interview to right-wing former Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson in Moscow this week “demonstrated Putin’s interest in building bridges to the disruptive MAGA element of the Republican Party, and it seemed to reflect the Kremlin’s hope that Donald Trump would return to the presidency and that Republicans would continue to block U.S. military aid to Ukraine.”

Yesterday, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced, and more than 60 House Republicans co-sponsored, a resolution denying that Trump had engaged in insurrection in his attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

Former District of Columbia police officer Michael Fanone, who was badly hurt on January 6,  said the resolution was “a slap in the face to those of us who almost lost everything defending the Capitol on January 6th, including protecting some of the very Members of Congress who are now attempting to rewrite history to exonerate former President Trump. 

“But no piece of paper signed by a group of spineless extremists will ever change the facts about that dark day:” he wrote, “the insurrection was violent, it was deadly and it will happen again if we do not expunge the MAGA ideology that stoked the flames of insurrection in the first place. Rep. Matt Gaetz and every supporter of this resolution must be held accountable for their lies and un-American efforts to undermine our democracy.”

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