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Did Donald Trump really ‘take over’ the Republican Party?

The argument is a bridge too far for me. I think the Republican Party is still in turmoil over Trump and Trumpism. 

“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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.”