Donald Trump may no longer be president, but he still maintains a vice grip on the Republican Party. Any potential aspirant to power must pay fealty to him, even if it means stripping themselves of their dignity.
Most recently, Trump has turned next year's Texas attorney general race into a race to the bottom of self-respect, and both potential candidates have filled their mouths with saliva to lick his boot heels. Trump announced Tuesday he planned to endorse either incumbent Ken Paxton or state land commissioner George P. Bush. Whatever decision he makes, either man will have earned this dubious reward.
Last year, in support of Trump's lies that he won the election, Paxton filed a baseless lawsuit against Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Michigan, hoping to get the Supreme Court to block the states from voting in the Electoral College. The lawsuit was understandably thrown out. It also raised questions as to whether Paxton, who is the subject of an FBI investigation, launched the stunt in pursuit of a presidential pardon. Paxton even spoke at Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, which stirred Trump's supporters into such a frenzy that they raided the Capitol. Of course, Trump didn't pardon Paxton before leaving office two weeks later, and if Trump winds up siding with Bush, Paxton would have debased himself for nothing.
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But if Trump backs Bush, it will only be because the latter sold his family out. As his name would suggest, Bush is the son of Jeb Bush, the man whom Trump relentlessly pilloried as "low-energy" during the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign. Trump also went after Bush's mother, Columba, who is from Mexico, when in 2015, he retweeted someone saying "#JebBush has to like the Mexican Illegals because of his wife." Trump then said he was surprised that Jeb did not push harder for an apology to his wife during a subsequent debate.
One would think that a Texan would not take another man insulting his mother lying down. But the younger Bush has been just as subservient to his party's leader as other Republicans. Trump endorsed Bush's reelection bid in 2018 and called him "the only Bush who got it right." Bush reciprocated by backing Trump in 2020, and when Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of his uncle George W.'s vice president, was ousted from House Republican leadership, he praised the move. Trump seemed to appreciate the overtures and called George P. to express his support. Politico reported on Thursday that Trump has taken to calling Bush "my Bush" and an aide said that the former president relishes "how much it kills Jeb that his son has to bend the knee and kiss the ring." Jeb only responded to the report with a simple "I love my son" by email.
The whole affair is an embarrassment and shows how the only litmus test for Republicans these days is how obsequious an elected official is to Trump, and especially his electoral fictions. As many have noted, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), who replaced Cheney as head of the House Republican Conference, voted with Trump 77.7 percent of the time throughout Trump's presidency, while Cheney voted with him 92.9 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. But Stefanik, who voted against Trump's tax cuts, was a staunch defender of Trump during his first impeachment trial and loudly parroted his biggest lies about the election.
Of course, Trump has revealed how craven and shameless plenty of other Republicans are. Sen. Ted Cruz went from calling Trump "a sniveling coward," after Trump insulted his wife, and a "pathological liar," after Trump accused Cruz's father of being linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, to objecting to the certification of electoral votes on his behalf, which fanned the flames of an attempted coup. Sen. Marco Rubio went from calling Trump a "con artist" to being just another one of his lapdogs.
Trump's endorsement is so sought after that plenty of people whom he hasn't endorsed try to maintain the appearance of his support or loyalty. In the primary for a special election in Texas' 6th congressional district earlier this year, former professional wrestler Dan Rodimer claimed that his campaign was "the only one that has ever been endorsed by President Trump in this race." But Trump had endorsed Rodimer in 2020 when he ran in Nevada and lost, not in the special election. Trump endorsed another candidate.
Even when Trump has given someone the boot, they still wind up trying to show they are sufficiently loyal. After Trump showed his Attorney General Jeff Sessions the door, Sessions continued to tout his loyalty to the president when he ran for his old Senate seat in Alabama, to the point Trump's campaign sent a letter to Sessions' campaign telling him to cut it out. Meanwhile, Trump backed former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, who won.
What's ironic is that by paying fealty to Trump, Republicans may be hurting themselves in the long term: If they can't bring themselves to admit that Trump lost, they can never move beyond his electoral failures (or widen the inroads he made with people of color and in previously uncompetitive areas). And if they keep focusing on what makes Trump happy, they will never be able to negatively define Joe Biden, who has so far enjoyed steady approval ratings.
If Texas is any indicator, though, there's no end to the GOP's groveling in sight.
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