As the GOP bends toward Trump, his critics either give in or give up

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Al Drago / The New York Times

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) speaks with reporters following his announcement he would not be running for re-election in 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 24, 2017. On Oct. 25, President Donald Trump continued his attacks on Flake and Sen. Bob Corker, two retiring Republican senators, and said a recent meeting with lawmakers in his party was mostly a “love fest with standing ovations.”

Thu, Oct 26, 2017 (2 a.m.)

Despite the fervor of President Donald Trump’s Republican opponents, the president’s brand of hard-edge nationalism — with its gut-level cultural appeals and hard lines on trade and immigration — is taking root within his adopted party, and those uneasy with grievance politics are either giving in or giving up the fight.

In some cases, the retirement of an anti-Trump Republican could actually improve the Republican Party’s chance of retaining a seat. Sen. Jeff Flake’s decision Tuesday to not seek re-election was greeted with quiet sighs of relief in a party anguished by his plunging approval ratings.

But such short-term advantages mask a larger, even existential threat to traditional Republicans. The Grand Old Party risks a longer-term transformation into the Party of Trump.

“There is zero appetite for the ‘Never Trump’ movement in the Republican Party of today,” said Andy Surabian, an adviser to Great America Alliance, the super PAC that is aiding primary races against Republican incumbents. “This party is now defined by President Trump and his movement.”

On Wednesday, Joe Straus, the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, announced that he would not run again, an indication that the Washington fever was spreading. Straus, a pragmatist with deep ties to the Bush family who had tangled with his state’s hard-liners, delivered a plea that Republicans “appeal to our diverse population with an optimistic vision,” but he still chose flight over fight.

Straus’ dash for the exits followed the retirement announcements of Flake, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Pat Tiberi of Ohio and Dave Reichert of Washington state — all members of the Republican establishment.

Many of those who remain will have to accommodate the president to survive primaries from the pro-Trump right. Already, in the high-profile campaigns of 2017 — governor races in Virginia and New Jersey and a special Senate race in Alabama — Republican candidates are mirroring Trump’s racially tinged campaign tactics. And Republican officials are putting up with the sort of incendiary candidacy that a party more devoted to nurturing a tolerant image might have rejected.

The reason? Many of their voters prefer the Trump way.

“We’re not an element,” said Laura Ingraham, a pro-Trump talk show host. “We’re the party.”

Ingraham, the author of a new book, “Billionaire at the Barricades,” on the populist uprising that helped elect Trump, said the conservatism of market-oriented internationalism simply has little mass appeal.

“There’s no constituency for open borders, endless war and these international trade deals that are skewed against the United States,” she said.

As for the limited government pitch that defined Flake’s career, Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, scoffed.

“This thing they’ve got today doesn’t work, it doesn’t move with urgency,” said Bannon, who is now orchestrating an effort to defeat Republicans deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump’s agenda. “It’s very nice. But it’s a theoretical exercise. It can’t win national elections.”

Even some of the president’s detractors on the right believe that the party base will stick with him because they like his agenda.

“We have a leader who has a personality disorder,” said former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., “but he’s done what he actually told the people he was going to do, and they’re not going to abandon him.”

This grass-roots loyalty is why no prominent Republicans on the ballot next year have broken with Trump — only lame-duck lawmakers and Republicans out of office, such as former President George W. Bush, have been harshly critical of him.

At the moment, congressional Republicans and Trump are trying to make common cause of an overhaul of the tax code because they see it as something of a temporary cure-all. A bill-signing ceremony on taxes would hand lawmakers something to run on next year and the president a much-needed accomplishment.

“It stops the bleeding,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina.

But even that holds risks. A tax cut that skews heavily toward corporations and the rich would hardly dislodge the populist view of a Republican establishment beholden to its donors.

“I don’t think the rank-and-file Republican believes that corporations are people,” said Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to the Trump campaign who has also worked with Bannon. He was mimicking a Mitt Romney quote that earned Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, ridicule for being out of touch.

On Wednesday, Trump painted a rosy picture of the party.

“We have, actually, great unity in the Republican Party,” he told reporters before leaving for a fundraiser in Texas.

But even as Trump won repeated standing ovations from Senate Republicans on Tuesday when he visited their weekly lunch at the Capitol, the party’s lingering tensions were also on display. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, a longtime member of the Agriculture Committee, expressed concern about whether Trump would pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to a Republican present at the luncheon.

Less than an hour after Trump left the Capitol, Flake was on the Senate floor delivering a 17-minute excoriation of the Trump era.

How aggressively the president pursues his platform on trade and immigration restrictionism could test how strong his grip is on Congress.

For now, though, the vision for a more populist-nationalist party sketched out by Bannon is being won as much through intimidation as through actual purges in Republican primaries.

What Bannon is trying to do — and what Flake’s retirement could further — is strike fear in the hearts of Republicans who do not display enough enthusiasm for the nationalism that Trump ran on.

“This should be a warning shot to any other ‘Never Trumper’ in the Senate today: Your time is up,” Surabian said.

That is playing out not only in the examples of Flake and Corker.

In Nevada and Mississippi, Sens. Dean Heller and Roger Wicker have responded to Trump-inspired primary threats by taking steps to emphasize their fealty to Trump.

On Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, endorsed former Judge Roy S. Moore in the Alabama Senate race, praising Moore, a caustic social conservative, as “a tireless advocate led by principle rather than politics.” Cornyn is the highest-ranking Republican to formally back Moore.

But accommodation is not giving pause to would-be rivals. Danny Tarkanian, Heller’s Republican challenger, said the conversation among activists was no longer dominated by finding the most conservative candidates.

“The talk I hear is, ‘Hey, who’s going to support Trump’s “America First” policies,'” said Tarkanian, citing trade, military intervention and what he described as “worrying more about refugees from other countries than our own people.”

In the House, some lawmakers who have previously spoken out against Trump, such as Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., are now working to repair their relationship with the White House.

“The message they’re sending is: The way to survive is by accommodating him, changing their tone and professing loyalty to Trump,” said William Kristol, the former editor of The Weekly Standard and a vociferous Trump critic.

Whether Trump permanently realigns the party around his style and platform may depend on how much he remains true to what could be called Trumpism.

Graham believes that the president is not as wedded to some of his nationalist policies as his supporters want to believe.

“The best thing that could happen to Trump and the future of the Republican Party is for Trump to fix a broken immigration system,” Graham said.

By calling last week to offer his support to a handful of Republican senators that Bannon had named as potential targets, the president demonstrated he would not blindly follow his former adviser.

Establishment Republicans are attempting to convince Trump that “if you join with Bannon, you cut your own throat,” Graham said, because it could lead to an impeachment effort by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

But these arguments cause the early Trump enthusiasts only to roll their eyes. The party establishment, these Trump backers say, wants to govern as if the election never happened.

“They still think the election was about Trump’s personality,” Ingraham said. “It wasn’t. It was his ideas.”

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