President Donald Trump has never bothered with pretense. He's never pretended to care about the Republican Party as a set of ideas or ideologies. He's never craved like-minded companions. He wants the adulation of the masses who identify with the Republican Party and the unwavering, unblinking loyalty of his fellow party members. There is no reciprocity — only an unending stream of homage and tribute can appease the self-styled emperor of the Grand Old Party.
Trump's reign is coming to an end, but like past tyrants, he is refusing to see the writing on the wall. In the moments when he does admit his fate, it's only in the context of his eventual return to power. As a result, Trump's closing days in office are all about laying out one last gantlet of fealty to ensure his return to the White House in 2024. Any signs of dissent will result in his personally shivving the offender politically, kneecapping any threat to his absolute control of the Republican Party.
If you think that's an exaggeration, here's how Politico described the chaos that Trump has created as he continues to insist that the election was rigged and party officials scramble to agree: "State party chairs are tearing into their governors. Elected officials are knifing one another in the back. Failed candidates are seizing on Trump's rhetoric to claim they were also victims of voter fraud in at least a half dozen states."
Any signs of dissent will result in Trump personally shivving the offender politically, kneecapping any threat to his absolute control of the Republican Party.
It's the only logical endpoint to his takeover and subsequent reprogramming of the party. It's not as though there's been anything close to meaningful repercussions for his actions against his fellow Republicans since he first clinched the party's nomination in 2016. He's cowed his political rivals into total submission.
He's continued to make millions of dollars even while holding office. And despite being, as The New Republic's Matt Ford pointed out, absolutely terrible at politics and getting what he wants legislatively, he has remained convinced that there are no limits to his power as president.
And when the emperor's clothing has been called out as nonexistent, rather than recede in shame like the fable's embarrassed monarch, Trump has lashed out. Rank and length of service to the party are meaningless in Trump's mind. No matter how many times a person has done him a favor, saved him from political defeat or, in the case of impeachment, voted to keep him in office, there is no "enough" for Trump. It's the kind of thinking that demands that Senate Majority Whip John Thune face a primary challenge for correctly saying Congress can't overturn the votes of the Electoral College. Correctly describing the emperor's nakedness is an unpardonable sin.
Likewise, Sen. Tom Cotton stood up for Trump in the summer, arguing that the president's response to the anti-police brutality protests needed to go even further, invoking military deployment as an option. But he has refused to line up behind the vanity challenge to the Electoral College results his colleagues have scheduled for Wednesday and so has found himself on the receiving end of a threatening Trump tweet.
The president's Twitter account is the high-decibel, 280-character version of a toxic partner's whispers of "you are nothing without me." He won't be able to move markets and generally terrorize the masses with his Twitter account after Jan. 20, but unless Twitter decides to wrench it from him post-presidency, it's still how he'll ensure that the Republican Party can't survive without him at its head, programming that truth into his millions of remaining followers.
Trump's grip on the base, addicted to the rush of gorging on his ambrosial lies, is both his lifeline and his scourge. Democracy isn't a goal to Trump; it's a tool for harnessing the power of millions into being an instrument of his rage to punish and torment his enemies. It's why, despite his middling track record in getting his endorsees elected, his threats to men like Thune and Cotton still carry weight.
There are plenty of elected officials who clearly worry that Trump is right. What is the GOP now without his charismatic calls for owning liberals and defending him from his attackers? Matt Continetti, the founder of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, mused about this in The New York Times last month and came up empty, finding the party a hollowed-out shell. "The Republican Party has embraced reality-TV authoritarianism not out of strength but weakness," he wrote. "Mr. Trump is all it has."
For all his delusions of grandeur, Trump knows this truth deeply and intuitively. And the second that seems like it isn't the case, he will sabotage anyone and anything that threatens him. He even seems willing to tank the Senate elections in Georgia on Tuesday in his demands for validation.
Trump even seems willing to tank the Senate elections in Georgia on Tuesday in his demands for validation.
"I talk to Republicans and they look at what's happening, and they say, 'You know, he must be thinking, 'I want to send a message — if I'm not on the ballot, Republicans are in trouble,'" Axios co-founder Mike Allen told CNBC last month.
Look no further than his attacks on Georgia's elected officials even as control of the Senate, vital to his party over the next two years, hangs in the balance. At a rally Monday evening ahead of the pair of runoffs, he focused more on his own election woes, promising to campaign against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in two years for not throwing him the state. And on Saturday, almost two months after Election Day, Trump tried yet again to get Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to reverse the state's election results, begging him to "find 11,780 votes."
"You have a big election coming up, and because of what you've done to the president — you know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam," Trump said on the call. "Because of what you've done to the president, a lot of people aren't going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to the president."
And how have Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue reacted to this betrayal? They've bent and twisted themselves to align with Trump's shifting positions as they work to fend off their Democratic challengers. They've joined Trump in his attacks on Raffensperger, calling on him to resign; they agreed to support $2,000 stimulus checks after Trump supported them.
But as The Washington Post reported Monday evening, some Georgia Republicans say "they're not sure Trump really wants Loeffler or Perdue to win, because if they do it undermines his central complaint that the state's elections are rigged. It would also pour salt in the wound of his defeat in Georgia, something he has struggled to understand." What do the failures of others matter if Trump himself is not victorious?
These slights aren't enough to prompt the GOP leadership to break up with Trump — not so long as the people who put them in office believe that he loves them and the rank and file are still in the president's crosshairs.
Until then, there is no escape for the few who dare challenge him: Trump is a man who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. And he is willing to drag his party to the depths with him rather than loosen his grasp enough for even one of them to slip through his fingers unscathed.