In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt, coming off two consecutive landslide victories, the second of which amassed 523 Electoral College votes and a nearly 25 percent popular vote margin, attempted to force wayward members of his party to support his agenda. Democrats in Congress had been bottling up his agenda and rebelling at his campaign to enlarge the Supreme Court (which had been wantonly striking down his program), but despite barnstorming the country and imploring his supporters to nominate pro-Roosevelt Democrats, the campaign ended in failure. In Georgia, to take the scene of one high-profile Rooseveltian intervention, where three-quarters of the public supported Roosevelt, an equally large three-quarters opposed his intervention in the party primary.
Ever since, it has been received wisdom that a president, however popular, cannot overcome the entrenched power of localized representation. At the outset of Trump’s presidency, the president was warned of this unshakable reality. If Trump attempted to follow Roosevelt’s path and challenge wayward Republicans, “the consequences could be devastating,” predicted one historian. “A brutal primary battle could hand the seats held by Heller and Flake to the Democrats. Or they might survive, returning to office newly liberated to oppose the president at will, as Roosevelt’s opponents were after 1938.”
Needless to say, it has not worked out this way. Trump has not only brought his internal opposition to heel, he has turned his party into a cult of personality exceeding anything the modern American system has ever produced.
The once-fierce internal opposition to Trump is now limited to a handful of retired or retiring officials. Ted Cruz called Trump “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar”; Marco Rubio called him a “con man”; Lindsey Graham termed Trump a “kook” who was “unfit to be president.” Trump’s behavior in office has borne out all these assessments, yet their authors now grovel before him.
It is true that Republicans have largely co-opted Trump into supporting a traditional Republican agenda. But in cases where he has diverged from their stated preferences, they have swallowed their doubts. Efforts to craft an immigration compromise have floundered, and Republicans have not moved a bill to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump has flagrantly defied party orthodoxy by launching simultaneous trade wars against most of the world, using authority that Congress had granted to the president decades ago and could take back. And despite the fact that a bill revoking the absurdly over-broad presidential power to impose tariffs on anything for “national security” reasons would command huge support among both parties, neither chamber of Congress has done anything. “Ninety-five percent of the people on this [Republican] side of the aisle support intellectually this amendment” to revoke the tariffs, complained Senator Bob Corker, who is of course retiring, but are afraid “we might poke the bear.”
Their fear is perfectly rational. Republican voters have elevated unconditional support for Trump into a first principle. One Republican operative recently told Matt Lewis that the topic his candidate is asked most frequently, after sanctuary cities, is, “Do you stand with our president?” Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel declared, “Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.”
Traditionally, the most radical members of the Republican caucus have gained notoriety by proposing more ideologically pure legislation, or refusing to vote for passable bills. Under Trump, they have discovered a new path: endorsing pro-Trump conspiracy theories involving the deep state. One such member is Florida representative Matt Gaetz, who has been harassing the Department of Justice on Trump’s behalf. Notice how, in this quote, Gaetz not only carries Trump’s water but apes his peculiar speaking style: “We haven’t been tough about getting the documents. We keep playing this game, and it’s starting to look like it’s a low-energy investigation if we don’t start holding people in contempt and beginning impeachment proceedings in the absence of compliance with congressional oversight.” This is distilled personality cultism.
The question is, does Trump’s success overturn what we thought we knew about a president’s power to dominate his party’s congressional caucus? Is Trump simply better at this than Roosevelt, or anybody else?
A more likely explanation is that Trump has turned his party into a personality cult because the modern Republican party is more structurally conducive to becoming one than Roosevelt’s Democrats, or any other major party in American history (since at least Andrew Jackson).
The Republican Party is (and always has been) more ethnically homogenous than the Democratic Party. Democrats have to cobble together a coalition of white and nonwhite voters, religious and secular. That heterogeneity causes voters to demand representatives who cater to their specific identities; Democrats from rural red states carve out more conservative political identities, while those from college towns or heavily nonwhite cities will differ from each other in their outlook. The Republicans are overwhelmingly the party of white cultural traditionalists, and more naturally coalesce around a shared agenda.
That has been true for decades, of course. Two other factors have become true only in the last decade or two. The Republican coalition has grown increasingly authoritarian in its personality outlook. The concept of an authoritarian personality is controversial among academics, and the definition of the term has been contested and changed over time. But it has gained renewed salience and explanatory power during the era of a president who seems to wake up every day looking for new ways to bear out authoritarian personality theory, by disregarding the rule of law, excoriating minorities or news media as enemies of the state, and praising his followers for their mindless loyalty. It is implausible to imagine in the current moment that a party that elected Barack Obama could behave in the same way as the party that elected Trump.
The final reason is the rise of a party-controlled news media within the GOP. When Roosevelt tried to support pro–New Deal Democrats over conservative ones, reporters labeled it a “purge” and compared his methods to the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. Milder efforts to bring recalcitrant Democrats to heel, by the likes of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, met with skepticism from local reporters and a national mainstream media that tends to reflexively favor centrism and nonpartisanship and sees party discipline as the enemy of the public good.
The news environment in which Trump’s supporters live has none of these qualities. It is heavily nationalized and deeply partisan. While right-wing media does respond to the desires of its audience, it also shapes it. Conservative media could take its cues from the party’s congressional leadership, but its most influential figures have personal ties to the president. As Gabriel Sherman has reported, Trump communicates so frequently with Fox News he is serving in some sense as its de facto editorial director. To the extent Trump deserves credit for his takeover of the party, it is through his canny playing of the inside media game, wooing powerful insiders in the right-wing media to make him (rather than Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell) the protagonist of their drama.
There is a deep historical irony in the presidential unity of Trump’s Republican Party. Since Roosevelt’s time, liberals have longed to create an ideologically disciplined, parliamentary-style Democratic Party. The party of Trump has cracked the code. But they have achieved this through a model liberals would never be able, or even want, to follow.