Two facts stand out about Donald Trump’s remarkable ascension to the presidency. First, no presidential candidate—not even Barry Goldwater or George McGovern—faced so much internal opposition from his own party, with many major figures saying Trump was manifestly unfit for office. Second, that opposition, which initially seemed so fierce, quickly diminished to almost nothing. Trump was able to consolidate enough of the Republican vote to win an Electoral College victory, and from there any lingering dissent has been almost wholly stamped out.
The big political story of 2016 was the failure of Never Trump, a movement of brave defiance that ended in capitulation. This is a story that will have fateful consequences, because there is every evidence that the powers that be in the GOP, notably Speaker Paul Ryan, are going to continue surrendering to Trump on key issues, paving the way for Trump to remake the Republican Party as he sees fit.
Senator Marco Rubio, for example, said Trump was a “con man” and too dangerous to control the nuclear codes, but he ended up endorsing him. Ryan said Trump’s attack on a Mexican-American judge for his ethnicity was the “textbook definition of a racist comment,” but he also endorsed Trump. In June, Mitt Romney said a President Trump would incite “trickle-down racism and trickle-down bigotry and trickle-down misogyny—all of these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.” After Trump won, Romney quickly made his peace with him, telegraphing that he would serve as Trump’s secretary of state, a job application that has required him to undergo a humiliating ritual of praising Trump and walking back his earlier comments.
But one man perfectly symbolizes how the Republican Party bowed before Trump: Ted Cruz.
Cruz has every reason—both personal and political—to hate Trump. In March, in the thick of the Republican primary, Trump retweeted an image that contrasted the physical appearance of his wife Melania with that of Cruz’s wife Heidi, the implication being that Heidi Cruz was not sexually desirable. Cruz responded the next day by saying Trump should “leave Heidi the hell alone.” In May, Trump touted a National Inquirer story that alleged that Cruz’s father Rafael was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
At first, it seemed like Trump’s attack on Cruz’s wife and father would make it impossible for the Texas senator to endorse Trump for president. Furthermore, Cruz had described Trump as a bully, “utterly amoral,” and a pathological liar. In July, in a speech before the Republican National Convention, Cruz resolutely refused to endorse Trump, urging the attendees, amid widespread booing, to “vote their conscience.”
But Cruz’s gutsy stance was undermined by political reality. He received a barrage of criticism from his Republican confreres and quickly realized he would have no future as a national candidate if he didn’t buy a ticket on the Trump train. In a Facebook post in September, Cruz wrote, “After many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience, I have decided that on Election Day, I will vote for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.”
Cruz cited policy issues as the key factor, most notably the nomination of Supreme Court justices. But what led Cruz to this personally humiliating decision was the logic of partisan politics. Highly committed Republicans—of which Cruz is surely an exemplar—have real differences with Democrats like Hillary Clinton, which means they are likely to vote for whomever their party nominates, even someone as loathsome as Trump.
The path taken by Cruz has been followed by countless other prominent Republicans. And the pattern of capitulation is likely to continue unless Trump suffers a massive loss of popularity among Republican voters. This means the Republican Congress is not going to effectively push back against Trump’s excesses.
This week, rumors briefly flourished that Senator Susan Collins of Maine was going to oppose the nomination of Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Collins herself quickly squashed the rumors. Cruz and other Republicans defended Trump’s sudden break with longstanding government policy when he took a phone call from the president of Taiwan. Republicans on Capitol Hill seem to have decided they are not going to challenge Trump on the glaring conflict-of-interest problems presented by his global business empire.
The party that capitulated to Trump is going to keep on waving the white flag. Never Trump was a popular slogan in 2016, but the reality of the Republican Party is now Forever Trump.
It’s easy to find extenuating justifications for the cravenness of the GOP. It’s rooted in an age of partisan polarization, as well as the dream of the likes of Paul Ryan of having a unitary government that could fulfill long-deferred goals of the conservative movement. As astute observers like Michael Grunwald note, the fanatical partisanship of the GOP, already evident in the way Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell implemented a policy of absolute rejectionism during the Obama administration, has in fact turned out to be politically smart: The GOP thwarted Barack Obama on many fronts and can now roll back his presidency.
Yet politics can never be fully divorced from morality. In order to achieve their victory, Republican leaders handed their party over to Donald Trump, a racist who boasted of sexually assaulting women, an advocate of torture and ethnic bigotry, a man in every way unfit for high office. Once Trump became the Republican nominee, the possibility of him becoming president was real and very few in his party tried to stop him. Whatever happens in the Trump era won’t just be his fault, but will now taint the entire party. That’s the true price of Republican capitulation.