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Did Donald Trump really 'take over' the Republican Party?

“Trump’s Takeover,” the latest documentary from the great PBS “Frontline” series, premieres tonight (KTCA-Channel 2 in the Twin Cities, 9-10 p.m.).

The “Takeover” in question is that of the Republican Party, which foundered in early 2017, when the drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) failed because President Donald Trump and the various factions of the congressional Republicans couldn’t get together.

But then, according to Frontline, Trump’s takeover of the party was consummated with the passage last December of the big tax bill.

The argument is too strong for me. I think the Republican Party is still in turmoil over Trump and Trumpism; I doubt Trump even knows the details of what’s in that tax law; I think he needs more than one major bill signing to demonstrate that he has “taken over;” and I still see evidence that plenty of Republicans harbor feelings ranging from ambivalence to disgust about Trump and Trumpism, if you can even say that there is anything coherent that can be called “Trumpism,” other than the glorification of its figurehead and namesake.

I’m not saying there is anyone other than Trump who is more influential in the Republican Party at present. But I’m sure that many Republicans, including many in Congress, find him personally offensive and ideologically incoherent. The big tax bill did not make that go away.

Compared to other democracies in the world, the American system is a relatively weak party system. Party platforms are almost meaningless. In most other democracies, if a major party took control of all or most of the levers of power, they would pass a lot more than one big bill.

I’m astonished (and tentatively relieved) at how little the “unified Republican” government has accomplished. It looks to me as if the only things that can pass are those that Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, the Freedom Caucus in the House, and the four or five moderate Republicans in the Senate agree on. Turns out, that’s not so much.

But I have a lot of respect for the Frontline team. “Trump’s Takeover” is at least a good review of the first year of Trumpism in the White House. Even if, like me, you don’t buy the idea of a Trump takeover,  you’ll be reminded of many of the events of that first year if you watch the film.

In the film, Trump’s campaign manager (for a while) Corey Lewandowski, is quoted as saying that during the campaign Trump had no interest in meeting with or seeking common ground with the Republican “establishment.” Trump’s political mentor Roger Stone says that Trump was “larger than the Republican Party” and that “his nomination was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”

Frank Luntz, a long-time Republican pollster, said that during the primary season he “didn’t know anyone who voted for[Trump]. They all thought he was crass and crude.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is on camera, saying that many of Trump’s obnoxious antics, such as his refusal to acknowledge that Barack Obama had been born in the United States, were “not worthy of a serious politician.” He also described himself as “appalled” by Trump’s questioning whether (Flake’s fellow Arizona senator) John McCain deserved to called a war hero.

These data points, and others in the film, suggest that most of the Republican establishment hoped and believed that someone else would get the nomination, or that if Trump did get it, he couldn’t be elected. As you may have heard, they were wrong.

Then, the film suggests, the congressional leaders convinced one another that since Trump knew little about policy, they could pass their own dream list of bills, on taxes, on health care, on infrastructure, and Trump would just sign them without getting terribly involved.

Perhaps that could have happened, at least on health care, a topic Trump never understood and on which he was very anxious to sign anything that could be called Trumpcare instead of Obamacare. But the internal factions of the Republican Party couldn’t agree on a bill.

Trump did try to get involved, the film suggests, believing that the force of his personality and salesmanship would overwhelm the legislators, or his deal-making skills would bridge the gaps.

On “Obamacare” repeal, it turned out that the House Freedom Caucus wanted full repeal and wasn’t willing to compromise. So Speaker Ryan pulled the bill. Lewandowski says Trump was “beside himself.” He blamed John McCain, who cast one of the key no votes and who, after 2016, felt no loyalty to Trump. Trump also blamed Ryan and McConnell, as if they were insubordinate employees of his.

Trump denounced the House version of the health care bill (even though he celebrated it when it passed the House and had been prepared to sign it).  Later, he called it “mean,” which has some truth but is a little too third grade for me.

Flake says in the film that senators noticed that remark, and it caused them to doubt whether Trump would provide them with cover if any bill passed, or whether Trump would just take credit for the popular parts and blame Congress for the rest. Trump also tweeted blame on McCain on had a screaming match over the phone with McConnell, Frontline said. Trump and McConnell didn’t speak for two weeks after that one, “Trump’s Takeover” says.

Then came the Charlottesville violence and Trump’s highly criticized statement about blame on both sides. Said Flake to Frontline: “This was a lay-up. This was easy. If there’s white supremacy in any form, you condemn it.”

Instead, Trump chose to go to Arizona, the state of both McCain and Flake, and hold a rally to defend everything he had said and done, and, while he was in the neighborhood, make savage oblique criticisms of both senators. After dissing the fatally ill McCain, Trump told the rally, about Flake:

“And nobody wants to talk about your other senator, who’s weak on borders, and weak on crime, so I won’t mention him. No, I’m very presidential. Very presidential.”

That may have helped Flake, who was considering retiring, to decide to do so, with an eloquent floor statement, saying that “anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”

“The impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a backward-looking minority party,” Flake also warned.

Lewandowski comes back into the film at this point to claim victory for Trump, saying of Flake’s announcement: “He went against Donald Trump, who’s a proven winner, and now Jeff Flake is just a guy who used to be a U.S. senator.”

Classy.

At this point, the film is three-quarters over. Trump has signed no major bills, built no wall, won no wars, has a below-water approval rating and he has politically revived the Democratic Party, which is winning special elections in red states like Alabama. Trump’s big accomplishment is to drive off Flake, Republican senator who is up for reelection this year. The contest to replace him, in a reddish state, is rated a toss-up.  Some triumph.

This is why I said at the top that I’m not really sure this film is about a successful “takeover.” Maybe Frontline is being slightly sarcastic in its choice of title, I don’t know. To me, up to this point, it is a story of failure, at least if success in the governing racket has something to do with bills becoming laws.

Finally, in minute 49 out of 60, the subject turns to the tax bill. Trump and the Republicans who control both houses are able to enact a pretty big change in the U.S. tax system. It will be a disaster for the deficit and debt picture. It disproportionately helps the already-wealthy. But, in Republican Party terms, it’s a big success.

Lewandowski comes back on camera to say: “The Republican establishment now all knows that Donald Trump is unequivocally the leader of the Republican Party. He sets the tone for what happens in Washington. He is the leader of the country both politically and from a legislative sense.”

Mitch McConnell appears too, telling Trump publicly: “You’re one heck of a leader, and we’re all benefitting from it. And we’re gonna make this the best presidency we’ve seen, not just in a generation but maybe ever.”

Perhaps Trump’s takeover is a takeover of McConnell’s mind or soul or heart. But I suspect the majority leader’s mind, soul and heart were all telling him that the way to thrive for the next little while will be to suck up to Trump.

Charlie Dent, a veteran Republican congressman from Pennsylvania has the last word in the film about what Trump’s “takeover” might mean in this context. Says Dent: “The litmus test [of a Republican] prior to Donald Trump was ideological purity. The litmus test was how doctrinaire are you? Now we have Donald Trump. And he is not very ideological, not very doctrinaire. And now the litmus test is loyalty to the president. And that is unsettling to me.”

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Comments (24)

No, I think 'Frontline' pretty well nailed it

If you are not an eager servant of Trump and Trumpism, you are either on your way out of office, like Arizona's Jeff Flake, or a isolated idealogue like Rand Paul of Kentucky. There are no other paths open to you. Look at the recent comments from Tim Pawlenty for more proof.

The GOP is hanging on to Trump like Major Kong clung to the bomb in "Dr. Strangelove." The outcome may be similar.

What "Takeover?"

Trump is not a new course for the Republican Party. He is the logical culmination of at least the past 40 years of Republicanism. The only difference is his style, or lack thereof.

The Republican Party started to distance itself from its former self--environmentalist, pro-women's rights, anti-racist--in the Nixon era. That trend continued in the Reagan years, and added the injection of ever more plutocratic ideology.The difference was always that the Party knew how to present itself in public. The adults were in charge, and they knew what you did or didn't say out loud. Otherwise, it was all there. You just had to read between the lines.

Trump is all id without superego. He is giving voice to Republican ideology in ways that would have been completely unacceptable just a few years ago. While his grasp of the minutiae of policy is questionable, he has the big picture in mind, and that's what matters. His signature achievement to date--the tax bill--is pretty much bog standard Republican upward distribution of wealth. There's nothing new there.

The "ambivalence to disgust" felt is not about policy, it's about his manners. The so-called courageous Republicans, who give voice to their disapproval as they are heading out the Congressional door, just don't like the way he says what he says. If the man could just learn to talk nice, one gets the impression that they would be fine with him.

They Are Fine With Him

Donald Trump doesn't need too "talk nice". The latest Gallup poll shows 89% of Republicans approve of Trump. The lowest percentage ever was 77%. Donald Trump is definitely representative of the Republican party now but I agree that since Nixon, the party has had a large majority of people who would agree with almost all the bills and executive orders Trump has proposed and enacted.

Trump used the REPs to get elected

Trump was willing to say and do anything to get elected.

He is not a REP. He is not religious, either. He uses people and events for PR solely.
Just as he has sold his 'name' for years, for profit.
There is no substance to him.

He was bought and paid for by the Libertarian Koch Bros and the Mercers.
Hence the push toward regression economically, and the white supremacy support.
The Mercers own Breitbart, a white supremacy site.
The Koch Bros have spent many millions trying to make their daddy's dream come true:

total obliteration of our federal government.

Trump and Bannon stated so in Oct 2016, on the campaign trail and in front of tv cameras.
This goal also explains the many unfilled positions, and the unqualified agency heads.

He is so transparent, it is surprising that more folks haven't caught on to him by now.
He is a lightweight and not bright. He is a user. A con. A grifter.
Also a corrupt criminal, which the Mueller amassed evidence will make abundantly clear shortly.

Hey GOP, the ashheap of history is calling

Whether takeover is temporary or permanent remains to be seen, but the most dismaying effect on the party is that it has become lock stock and barrel the White Peoples Party. The Party of Lincoln has been headed that way since Barry Goldwater but political correctness -- recall that Trump called PC one of if not our greatest problem -- kept a lot of voices muffled. Now his promised transparency has made the party platform a Nirvana for anyone to the right of Strom Thurmond. Two kinds of Republican make up the brand -- deplorables and people who are extremely tolerant of deplorables.

Trump is the natural endpoint

Trump is the natural endpoint of the Republican ideology that worshipped a mythical past and was resistant to the evidence of a world as it is, and is in denial of the future that is approaching.

A "reality show" king for a party that has tried to "make its own reality".

I couldn't possibly add anything more succinct and astute

than the five people that posted above me. It's just a pleasure to read such articulate voices.

We'll see…

Of the comments so far, I incline toward Neal Rovick's. I do think the Current Occupant is a logical result of Republican ideology, and I think Neal is right on point to suggest that the president – and the party he represents – is resistant to the world as it is, and in denial of the future coming over the horizon. My only quarrel is with what's implied – at least it seems implied to me – about what comes next. I'm not sure personally that Trump represents an endpoint. We're not yet quite as authoritarian and neofascist a society as we **could** be, though the Current Occupant has certainly done yeoman work in taking us down that path, with the help of a lot of people, Paul Ryan among them who have drunk deeply of the Ayn Rand Kool-Aid, whether they know it or not. Mitch McConnell is a clever relic of the Civil War, and the side he's on remains obvious.

Things could still get a lot worse, and may well do so while Congressional Republicans, concerned mostly with their own welfare and that of their wealthiest donors, sit on their hands. I'm just not yet convinced that Trump, or the Trump administration, with its numerous unsavory cabinet members and advisors, represents the worst that we can do. I **hope** that nothing will get worse, but hope is a feeble candle flame in a gale of racist, misogynist, plutocratic, chest-beating rhetoric from the Oval Office.

What comes next that the GOP

What comes next that the GOP is pretending won't ?

Climate change. Demographic shift. Full scale automation and associated job losses. Siezure of privacy. Concentration of wealth and power. Stagnation of pay. Increasing medical costs and decreasing availability. The takedown of public education. The upcoming cuts in SS and Medicare/Medicaid. Massive deficits when we are approaching a time of great need. The financial and ecologic unsustainability of the fracking economy.

And too, the coordinated denegration and degradation of democratic institutions.

The" take over?"

Trump has not nor will not take over the GOP. This is obvious to even the casual observer.

However, this inept, unprincipled, egotist businessman (I had to get the name-calling to make EB happy) defeated the inept, unprincipled, egotist democratic candidate.

This tells me more about the total inadequacies of Hilary Clinton and those that supported her than the political genius of Trump.

Ouch! That's Going to Leave a Mark!

You can't defend Trump except in the context of anti-liberal snark.

Your post speaks volumes about the total inadequacies of American conservative.

fair and balanced....

How can you say I am defending Trump?

I called DT and HC the same names! Even Eric Black should be pleased.

Perhaps you didn't see the

Perhaps you didn't see the scene in the Frontline piece with Ryan grinning on the White House lawn. Now, with his resigning from Congress, Ryan has washed his hands of the monster he helped create.

Or the fawning McConnell (and I could accurately use a couple of far cruder descriptions of McConnell's behavior).

Or all the Republican House members celebrating at Trump's command for passing a bill they KNEW would not pass the Senate.

Or all the high fives Republicans gave themselves while passing a tax cut that they knew would blow up the deficit. And a tax cut that was middle class in name only (OK, the upper class and business tax cut was vintage Republican).

Conway was right when she said Trump beat both the Republican and Democratic establishment. The number of Republicans in Congress who retain those traditional Republican values - and don't insist that the Emperor is, in fact, wearing clothes - could fit in one of those black Suburbans so common on Capital Hill.

How about a few facts to

How about a few facts to inject into the matter:

Virtually every GOP congress-critter supports Trump 90 to 100 percent of the time.

And Mr. Ryan and Scalise share the honor of the coveted 100% "with Trump" rating.

Not much daylight between Trump and the GOP.

https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/congress-trump-score/house/

Through the Republicans silence in congress

Trump absolutely positively has taken over the Republican Party. If there is no Republican resistance to Trump then there is agreement. Ryan and his boys and girls are silent and Mitch's boys and girls are silent that equals agreement. Republicans you own Trump and what ever messes he creates. Note, it is easier to clean up messes before they happen than it is after they happen. The choice is yours.

Takeover

implies a degree of organization that Trump lacks.
As Neal Rovick points out, Trump has completed the destruction of the Republican party as we once knew it.
The only question is whether Trump Inc. will replace the Republican party, or whether it will split off and form a third party, leaving the remains of traditional Republicanism to form a third party.

Trump's no genius.

Trump was just the right guy at the right time, and while he won the election, he isn't actually running anything. A "takeover" implies a change in effective leadership, while Trump is POTUS, he doesn't even have POTENTIAL for any effective leadership. So, he "won", but who's really in charge? Republicans, no matter where they manage to get into power over the last several decades, have had no capacity to govern effectively for decades. They haven't had a really good idea since Nixon went to China, and they NEVER get tired of being wrong.

It easy to give Trump too much credit until you step back from the tree and look at the forest. For one thing look the 17 or so other buffoons Trump ran against for the nomination. The truth is the Republican Party has been sliding into oblivion for decades, they just keep winning elections for a variety of quirky reasons. NONE of the Trumps adversaries in the Republican primary could distinguish themselves as any kind of popular candidates, that's an indictment on the Party, not evidence of Trump's very stable genius.

Furthermore, Trump is in many ways simply the logical conclusion to the arc of magical thinking, ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, and combativeness that Republicans have been promoting for decades. Gingrich fits right in with Trump because he was the Trump of his era... that was the early 90's. The fact is that only real problem a lot of Congressional Republicans have/had with Trump is that he says out loud in Tweets what they've been thinking for decades. They complain about his tone, and behavior, but they support his policies. Look at Bolton, he's not a new Trumpy kid on the block, he's an old Republican hawk born of the Reagan era.

The problem with promoting magical thinking and ignorance as basic values for decades is you end up with a party populated by magical thinkers and intellectual dullards. The truth is there just aren't very many really bright intellects left in the Republican party. They have some clever debate game players, but very little if any real capacity for intellectual work. so yeah, they thought Trump made sense, they thought he could be a useful idiot, they thought the same thing about the Tea Party. They thought they could control these people... but it's important to remember that they only thought all of this because they aren't very bright. So again, Trump only looks like a very stable genius when compared to the dullards that surround him.

Has Trump taken over the Party? In fact Trump is simply the ultimate personification of Republican "values" and essence. He's a buffoon that likes to fight, and wins some fights on occasion, but can never be an effective leader. He's a damaged individual and a sociopath at the head of a Party that long ago became a magnet for damaged people and sociopaths.

Sure some of the Republicans profiled in the Frontline piece have clashed with Trump, and some of them objected to his racism, but it was obviously too little too late. And I hate to say it but Trump's racism was never a secret, these guys were all OK with it as long it put a Republican in the White House, they didn't have a hard time with it until he failed to hide it effectively after the fiasco in Charlottesville. Again, saying out loud what many Republicans think.

Just because a bunch of these guys are jumping ship doesn't mean we can assume they've found their sense of decency and integrity, or if they have suddenly found their sense of decency and integrity... it's obviously too late. Ryan for instance just sees the writing on the wall, even an idiot can see the approaching blue wave and he doesn't want to preside over a minority in the House. He's also probably tired of trying herd a bunch of cats with little or nothing to show for it. The Republican Party is finally imploding, as it was always destined to do. But that implosion has been decades in the making, it's not all about Trump, Ryan and McConnell et al are just as responsible for this collapse as Trump.

So Trump sits in the White House, and he can give orders to some people, but I don't see any evidence that anyone is particularly "in charge" of either the Party or the Government. In some ways that's even spookier than the idea that Trump took over the Republican Party. I don't think Trump will emerge as THE leader because he obviously has no effective leadership skills. Like so many American executives he relies on subordinates and assumes THEY will do his job while he while he goes golfing. In many ways Trump is also the ultimate personification of the incompetent American executive who is celebrated for his illusory business acumen. We finally put a businessman in the White House.

Pe·ter Prin·ci·ple

DEFINITION
The principle that members of a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent.

Trump was Peter Principled long before he became POTUS. Elections have consequences and Trump is our consequence. Sitting on the sidelines at election time has consequences and Trump is our consequence. Relying on party's to select candidates has consequences and Trump is our consequence.

Four years is an eternity when we have a Peter Principled President.

PS
Paul Udstrand has it exactly right.

Just to follow up with one quick observation

While the implosion of the Republican party began decades ago, I would say that John McCain actually drove the first nail in the coffin when he choose Palin as his running mate. THAT was a supreme act of stupidity that opened the flood gates for whackadoos that eventually culminated in Trumps nomination. When I claim that their are few if any really intelligent people left in the Party, this is one example. McCain is supposed be one of the smart ones, and his fellow Republicans cheered Palin as a new dawn for the Party. He has partially redeemed himself, but the capacity to actually solve problems or work anything out has long since departed from the Republican intellect.

Instead of worrying about

Instead of worrying about whether Donald Trump has "taken over" the Republican Party, we might better worry about his quiet and unprecedented moves to "take over" our entire government. No ideology neededf, just the cult of Our Leader, the self-proclaimed "Only I can do it" savior of America.

Case in point: The Star Tribune had a longish Associated Press article today on the plight of the poor Internal Revenue Service, which is part of the Treasury Department, because of years of Congress's underfunding and constant attacks from the Right about how it treated fake right-wing "social" services non-profits that were really political advocacy groups. The article lamented the lack of resources the IrS had, in the face of the new task of implementing the late-2017 GOP tax cuts.

But another news services" item, on another page in another section of the paper, noted that Trump's Wall Street Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, has ceded the Treasury Department's (and the IRS's) authority and responsibility for implementing the new tax law to the White House. Namely, he ceded that implementation to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

That means that Donald Trump, not the traditional Treasury Department, has control over how regulations and forms and reviews and appeals, etc., concerning the new tax cuts for the wealthy are handled. As a White House agency, Management and Budget can be easily controlled by the president, who can hire and fire its head without Congressional review of approval. In fact, the current head of OMB is the same guy who simultaneously holds the Directorship of the Office of Consumer Financial Protection, Mick Mulvaney, where his mission is to destroy the agency!

This control is kind of like what Trump thought he had, and wants to have, with the Justice Department, and other Cabinet departments.

That is a dictatorial move. A fascist move, to use the terms former Secretary of State Madeline Albright used in a NYTimes Op-Ed last week on Trump's increasingly fascist tone and profile and actions.

Combine that with Trump's unconstitutional view of the Justice Department and the Attorney General as his personal legal reps--to do his bidding--and his love of military parades that he instructs ["my generals"] to prepare, his determination to let certain Cabinet members like Scott Pruitt get away with astonishing fraud and corruption, and his nepotism. What do you have? Certainly not a democratic-government resident. You've got Il Duce or Mein Fuhrer--going way beyond even what James Comey calls him: a Mafia Don who manipulates power by insisting on a personal fealty to one man at the top.

Horrifying, to this American.

Yes, and...

I think one thing we really should be talking about is what happens when a sitting POTUS is either voted out of office or impeached and convicted... but refuses to leave office? We need to be prepared for that because this guy obviously idolizes dictators and if anyone's is going to deny either the legitimacy of elections OR Congress, it's gonna be Donald Trump.

So what happens if the time comes and Trump simply refuses to leave and give up his office? How do we remove an ex-president?

Removing an Ex-President

Kicking him out of the White House could result in the first unlawful detainer in presidential history. It would be a fitting coda to what is shaping up to be the skeeviest administration since Grant.

I don't think it would come to that, however. Trump is too much of a coward not to blink. Sure, he would make a lot of noise about standing up to a "fake" election or a "phony" impeachment, but he would give in before anything too serious happened. This capitulation would be touted by his supporters as another one of his "great" qualities. "Look a the respect he has for the process," as if it would be something unique for a President to leave office when his time was up.

His removal would be a golden opportunity to update the Dr. Seuss classic reprinted by Art Buchwald, "Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!"

I hope you're right Mr. Holbrook

But I would be prepared just in case. A lot of your prediction hinges on Trump respecting the law and acting rationally. Thus far he's failed on both counts numerous times.

Now You Have Me Interested

And now I am going to spend far too much time looking up how you would remove a former President from the White House.

Just in case.