At FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon argues that President Trump completed his takeover of the Republican Party this year. I think that’s right.
Trump’s control of congressional Republicans is exemplified by the fact that no GOP member of the House voted for his impeachment. Indeed, as far as I know, no GOP member acknowledged that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine for a time in order to induce the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden. This, despite strong evidence that Trump did just that.
The evidence of Trump’s control of the House extends beyond the impeachment. Bacon points out:
In Trump’s first two years, for example, then-Speaker Paul Ryan sometimes balked at the president’s demands, angering the House Freedom Caucus. But Ryan’s former No. 2, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, is now the top Republican in the House, and he’s gone from Trump skeptic to fierce loyalist. The House Republicans are now essentially one big Freedom Caucus, aligning with the president on nearly every issue.
Trump’s sway over Senate Republicans isn’t quite as strong. However, it’s getting there:
In the Senate in 2017-2018, there were six GOP members who regularly criticized the president: Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. McCain resigned from the Senate and eventually died. Flake and Corker retired, and the latter was replaced by the very-pro-Trump Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
Up for reelection next year and needing Republican votes to ensure he is not defeated in a GOP primary, Sasse has dialed down his criticism of the president. The Trump-skeptical wing of Senate Republicans is now really down to three people: newly elected Mitt Romney of Utah, Collins and Murkowski.
Taking control of his own administration has proven more difficult for Trump than assuming control over congressional Republicans. However, Trump made significant strides this year:
Trump spent the latter half of 2017 and all of 2018 gradually forcing out the more establishment Republicans who he had initially put into top jobs in his administration. That process was all but completed in 2019. He replaced Mattis, national security adviser John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — all of whom allowed their disagreements with Trump to become public — with people who were more likely to align his vision.
At the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions was in full agreement with Trump in terms of policy, other than the sentencing of felons. However, William Barr is free from the conflicts, or appearance thereof, that precluded Sessions from involvement in matters relating to the election of 2016.
Now, if Trump could just curtail those White House leaks.
It’s normal for a first term president to control his party, especially in good economic times. But Trump, as a disruptive outsider, had to travel a longer than normal road. Now he’s just about completed the journey.
None of this means that Trump has transformed the Republican party for the long term. Whether that happens depends on whether he’s reelected next year and, if so, whether he is reasonably popular at the end of his second term.