Put a blond combover on the elephant. Take down the pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
It’s over. It’s Donald Trump’s GOP.
The anti-Trump candidates are fleeing, and the ones who stick around are getting trampled. The chill has gone out among whoever’s left: there’s no more speaking up, and if there is, it’s just for the sake of a speech, a protest quote that quickly disappears.
They chalk it up to party loyalty, or staying unified for the midterms. They say they still believe in the principles, but they don’t tend to do more than say the words. Then, when the microphones are off, they confide. They complain. They nurse fantasies that there’s a reckoning coming, that maybe this will all end with the Republican Party nominating someone like Eisenhower. Or at least like Paul Ryan.
And each time they watch another of their own go down, they try to move on. Don’t look back. Try to forget.
“This business is a lot like being a professional fighter: Over the course of it, you get a lot of shots to the head, and sooner or later, you’re knocked out,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), mourning fellow Rep. Mark Sanford’s loss in Tuesday’s primary. The race was a referendum on Trump, in the South Carolina House district where he ran weakest in 2016.
Deal with it, said Corey Stewart, the anti-immigrant, pro-Confederate symbols, new Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia: “This is the new Republican Party.”
As for the people resisting, Stewart said, “They’re dinosaurs. They need to wake up and understand that President Trump has fundamentally remade the Republican Party.”
“Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.
Sanford is a former governor of his state and well established member of the House. He’s broken with his party many times over other issues. He’d been around forever. He was durable. But he couldn’t withstand fighting Trump.
So, Republicans wonder, why would anyone else — especially a backbencher — even try?
“People become disenchanted with the way democracies work. A strongman comes along, says, ‘You’ve got to give up some freedoms, but if you do, I’ll take care of these problems for you,’” Sanford said late Tuesday in his concession speech. “We’ve got to stay true to this notion of the democratic principles that our founding fathers laid out.”
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Trump critic from the start, couldn’t agree more.
“Hell no,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview Wednesday about whether the GOP is lost to Trump. “A party can never be about one person. A party is about principles. Anyone, on either side, whose politics are based on being for or against the president is misguided.
“The focus needs to be on the issues — on keeping our economy booming, on reducing our huge debt, on the inequality of our education system, on cleaning our air,” he added. “Those are the principles that have spanned generations of Republican leaders, from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan, and it’s those principles that will get us back on track.”
Then there’s what’s happening every day. The party of free trade has gone protectionist. The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong-un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion dollar hole in the budget.
Family values and moralizing have been replaced by porn stars and Twitter tantrums. Trump goes to war with the G-7, and the sum of the Republican reaction is a statement from John McCain and a few comments on Sunday TV from Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
There aren’t committee hearings. There aren’t bills put on the floor. There aren’t votes that force the president’s hand. It’s well into cliché that the only people who speak out against Trump are the ones who’ve already been chased out of reelection and are heading to their cushy cable and lobbying gigs.
They can criticize from the sidelines all they want, but they won’t be around or have any power once January rolls around, and Trump and his allies will fill that space.
Sanford “never supported the president and he voted conservative. It’s a pretty narrow path for somebody who has any disagreements with the president’s policy or behavior,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is retiring rather than try to win a primary that his own polls showed he couldn’t. He’s a dependable mournful quote about what’s gone wrong, and reporters eat it up. But that’s about all there is.
Flake, along with fellow Trump critic Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is trying to check Trump on trade, but GOP leaders have rebuffed them. He described the GOP mentality as: “Don’t show a fissure, pretend we’re all together.”
They see what happens to people who speak up. They don’t want it to happen to them.
“It’s not in anybody’s best interest to try and get an agenda done to have division in the ranks,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “Anytime you have a president who enjoys strong support with the political base in a primary season, taking on that president comes with some political risk.”
The ones already out to pasture raise their fists in limp resistance.
“I am extremely disappointed that a candidate like Corey Stewart could win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served. Every time I think things can’t get worse they do, and there is no end in sight,” tweeted former Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling on Tuesday night.
Bolling didn’t respond to calls asking what he would propose to do about it.
Sanford declared in his concession speech that “we are a nation of laws, and not men. It is part of my creed that I believe in as a Republican: that I am indeed to cower before god, but no man.” He described his primary as part of “an inflection point” for the country and the GOP. “There’s been too much made of, ‘Are you for one personality, or against it?’ What we’re about as a nation is not being for one, or against one personality.”
“I stand by that belief although in this case it may have had significant electoral consequence,” he said.
Then Sanford walked away from the microphone and headed back to his final months in Congress. Meanwhile at her victory party, Sanford’s opponent, state legislator Katie Arrington, said, “We are the party of President Donald J. Trump.”
Burgess Everett and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.