Donald Trump broke through a new barrier Wednesday night as he urged Mehmet Oz, who leads the Pennsylvania Republican senatorial primary by a micrometer, to simply assert himself the winner and be done with it.
“Dr. Oz should declare victory. It makes it much harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find,’” Trump stated on Truth Social, his social media platform. He didn’t explain how the mechanics of such a tactic would work. Would Pennsylvania just put Oz on the general ballot by Oz’s (and Trump’s) decree? Even Trump supporters must have suffered a few seconds of the willies at Trump’s order that Oz should seize victory in a cliffhanger that might trigger a recount — especially given that Oz has only collected 31.2 percent of the vote.
But if Trump says it, the record shows, Republicans will fall into line. By the next set of primaries, Trump Republicans should be ready to declare victories in elections that have yet to open if Trump gives the say-so. To be a Republican is to be initially appalled by whatever Trump says, but that’s only the first part of the equation. After rejecting as poison whatever bilge he attempts to feed them, Republicans come to hail whatever he serves, regurgitate it and swallow it again. And they like it.
The first demonstration of such bilge-swallowing came in July 2015, as the Trump campaign first took wing. Trump deliberately violated Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican,” to dunk John McCain in a caustic bath of hellfire. McCain was no hero because he had been captured, Trump said. McCain, he continued, was “another all talk, no action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job.”
Denunciations fell on Trump like rounds of mortar fire in a border skirmish as the Republican establishment, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, stepped up to blast him. “If there was ever any doubt that @realDonaldTrump should not be our commander in chief, this stupid statement should end all doubt,” tweeted Graham, speaking for the party.
That didn’t last long. It never does, as many Republicans overcome their disgust for him. They say to Trump, “No, no, we’re not going to follow you there!” Trump says, “Oh, yes, you are.” They say, “No, no!” He says, “Yes, yes.” And they do. By his unique force of will and guile, Trump has, like clockwork, gotten Republicans to kneel almost every time he commands to them to assume the position. There’s no reason to think an issue like democracy will be any different. Of course, he’s already forced much of his party to spout his falsehoods about the 2020 election, and there’s likely more to come.
The pattern was set early. Party elders resisted Trump during the 2016 election, but even Mitt Romney, who pilloried Trump during the campaign, approached the victorious candidate on bended knee for a cabinet position (he went back to being a Never Trumper, it should be noted, and voted for Trump’s impeachment). Republicans scattered after the release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, but suppressed their disgust once he won the 2016 election and barely noticed a year later when he speculated that the tapes were “fake.” J.D. Vance regarded Trump an “idiot“ and his supporters racist in 2016, but he came around like many do, slobbering at Trump’s heel to win a Senate primary endorsement.
“Trump threatens and intimidates, he wields his followers like a cudgel, and he refuses to relent,” Jennifer Mercieca, author of Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, tells me. “Trump mastered Fox News in 2015 after the first Republican primary debate, he mastered the ‘Never Trump’ Republicans in January 2016 before the first votes were cast in the primary, and he has mastered his party ever since.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump would take the most cock-eyed, crazy positions, such as making rhetorical love to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in one moment and then threatening him with nuclear obliteration in the next. Or that time in July 2020, when he proposed that the fall election be delayed. Rather than calling him on it or demanding an explanation, Republicans have merely waited to mark where his yo-yoing stops and supported that position. Pick an issue, any issue. Minimum wage. Syria. The Export-Import Bank. Work visas. NATO. Steve Bannon — who is great and then isn’t and then is again. Replacing Obamacare. Or Covid, which was just going to vanish, or could be eradicated with a chlorine bleach transfusion.
More banana Republican than Republican, Trump has added several layers of gold plating to the already gilded “L’etat c’est moi” philosophy. His pretensions were on their most redolent display during the Covid summer of 2020 when he asserted, “I have the ultimate authority” to reopen our shuttered country, when no such authority exists.
Every politician urges his allies to follow his leadership, withholds favors to win deviationists’ support, and rewards supplicants to advance his goals. But for Trump, loyalty replaced political ends to become the only end. He burned through a series of powerful subordinates like Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson (fired by tweet!), James Comey, John F. Kelly, John Bolton, Bill Barr et al., who did not curtsy as low as he liked. Trump’s demands for unthinking allegiance so expanded during his stay in the White House that he assembled a “loyalty list“ in the final year of his presidency in preparation for a government-wide purge of the unfaithful within government ranks.
Trump’s wild expectations ballooned after November 2020 and Jan. 6 as he demanded that followers echo his twisted positions that the election was stolen and that the Capitol riot was actually a garden party. Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saw through the madness of King Trump in January, ascribing blame to him for the upheaval. But obeying the — let’s call it Trump’s 12th Commandment — McCarthy soon flew to Mar-a-Lago to genuflect to his master.
And so it continues in Pennsylvania, where we should fully expect some of the state’s most upright Republicans to shed their spines like Chesapeake blue crabs molting their shells. Many in the GOP are glum that the Stop-the-Steal proclaiming Trumper Doug Mastriano handily won the state’s primary for governor; but if it turns out he’s more electable than they feared, the party establishment will surely rally behind him as they did Trump. Meanwhile, Mastriano allies are already touting the 20 electoral votes Mastriano could influence if he wins office in November.
Some years ago Trump untethered himself from this world in favor of his personal metaverse where every election where he does not win is rigged, and any election that is too close to call must be awarded to his endorsee, and whatever he says goes. That in itself does not shock. Most politicians are megalomaniacs. What requires our inspection is not Trump’s reality-bending skills but the fact that so many worship his every utterance. How effective have his fantasies been? According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 53 percent of Republicans believe Trump is the true president, and that’s in this world, not the Trump metaverse.
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