In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Robert Kagan presented a chilling, but disturbingly accurate, portrayal of American politics today and its dire portents given the deep political divisions and dysfunctional state of our institutions. A premise of his thesis is that “party loyalty has superseded [executive-legislative-judicial] branch loyalty … in the Trump era.” A more descriptive statement of the Republican side of the ominous national problem — Democratic extremists deserve at least equal blame — would be that loyalty to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE has superseded party loyalty.
Trump has proved himself to be the ultimate embodiment of a “Republican in name only,” or RINO, a political epithet now hurled at Republicans who dare to deviate — not from GOP principles, but from Trump adulation.
Originally a Democrat (as was Ronald Reagan), Trump suggested in 2015 he might run for president as an independent, which would have split conservative voters and ensured a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE victory. In the first Republican debate in 2016, he alone among a dozen GOP candidates refused to commit to support the winning party nominee.
During his presidency, he often clashed with fellow Republicans, disparaging them on a personal level as crudely and cruelly as he did Democrats. When subjected to some criticism himself recently, he said Republicans should heed Reagan’s “11th commandment” and not speak ill of another Republican.
But Reagan lived by another political maxim: that anyone who agreed with him on 80 percent of the issues was not his political enemy. Trump’s philosophy seems to be that whoever agrees with him only 90 percent of the time deserves political ostracism.
Trump has even violated the Reagan principle retroactively. He recently commented on Democrat Stacey Abrams’s refusal to accept her failed 2018 effort to unseat Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempPerdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia governor primary: report The Memo: Media obsess over Trump's past as he eyes comeback Georgia becomes ground zero for 2022 elections MORE, noting that her obstinacy was deemed heroic, while his is treated as sour grapes: “When Stacey Abrams says I’m not going to concede, that’s okay.” But Trump could not resist another swipe at Republican Kemp for refusing to reverse the 2020 presidential result in Georgia: “Of course, having her I think might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth. Might very well be better.” By Trump’s score-settling and policy-free logic, a very progressive Democrat is preferable to a conservative but not Trump-compliant Republican.
In other races, Trump insists on endorsing candidates in GOP primaries who are devoted to him personally but tend to lose to Democrats in final elections.
The supreme test of Trump’s loyalty to the Republican Party and its principles occurred on Jan. 5 when Georgia held a runoff election for two Senate seats. Incumbent Republicans David PerdueDavid PerduePerdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia governor primary: report Georgia becomes ground zero for 2022 elections The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerPerdue to challenge Kemp in Georgia governor primary: report Senate GOP worries Trump could derail bid for majority Perdue mulling primary challenge against Kemp in Georgia: report MORE were part of the GOP’s 52-48 Senate majority. Republicans needed to retain only one of the seats to keep control of the Senate as a last bastion against a Democratic House and the new Biden administration. All eyes were on Georgia, so naturally, Trump agreed to address an election-eve rally.
All he had to do was to remind Republican voters of what was at stake, with Georgia as the bulwark against “the radical, socialist Democrats” that Trump and many of his supporters repeatedly conjured. His task was to get out the Republican vote, not to suppress it.
Instead, Trump used most of his prime-time speech repeating his charge that the Nov. 6 election was stolen from him, particularly in Georgia with its “rigged” electoral system. He attacked Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for not “finding” the 11,780 votes he “needed” to reverse Joe BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s victory in the state.
Trump’s attack on Georgia’s voting system and its election officials was enough to reduce Republican turnout significantly — why vote if the system is rigged against you? — and Democrats gained both seats. With Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden cannot allow his domestic fumbles to transfer to the world stage Joe Manchin should embrace paid leave — now The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends disappointing jobs report MORE there to break 50-50 ties, control of the Senate enabled a Democratic governing trifecta. The fate of the Biden agenda and the massive spending bills pushed by progressives that Trump had wielded as hobgoblins in his own campaign now rests in the hands of one or two moderate Democrats.
Trump’s obsession with retaining personal power and avoiding a loser image squandered a critical opportunity for his party. He callously cast aside the fate of the Republican governing agenda and, if he believed his own campaign rhetoric, the future of the nation.
Now, in the Virginia contest for governor, he is following the same destructive playbook that cost the GOP two critical Senate seats — Trump first, party last or maybe not at all. He recently warned that insufficient enthusiasm for the “Trump cause” could doom Republican Glenn Youngkin’s campaign: “The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement.” This week, he enlarged his prediction-cum-threat. Phoning in to a Republican fundraiser for state office candidates, he doubled down on his kiss-of-death approach to candidates with Trump-devotion deficiency.
While paying lip service to endorsing Youngkin — just as he had endorsed the Georgia Senate candidates almost in passing — Trump again focused on his own loss as the paramount concern for him and for the fate of the GOP: “If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24. It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do.” In a written statement, he also said: “Either a new election should immediately take place or the past election should be decertified and the Republican candidate declared a winner.”
Trump did not explain why Virginia voters who share his belief that elections are fraudulent should turn out next month for Youngkin and other Republican candidates. Youngkin campaign officials scrambled to explain away any suggestion that Trump may have been calling for the state’s GOP voters to sit this election out. Newsweek reported the concerns of rank-and-file Republicans: “Donald Trump is doing everything he can to hurt Republican chances in 2022,” an account called Trump Supporters wrote on Telegram. “Donald Trump is, ostensibly, a Republican. But he has shown time and again — both in the White House and now out of it — that he cares little about helping the party and its other candidates.” According to Newsweek, another Telegram user wrote, “Not voting is not just what Marxists want. It’s also stupid no matter how rigged the system is.”
I voted for Trump in 2020 because I shared Robert Gates’s low opinion of Biden’s 40-year record on national security, and because I greatly admired the transformative China policies the Trump administration had put in place. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping must now be relishing what Trump is doing to American democracy.
Hopefully, Republicans in 2024 will have the courage and good sense to choose a nominee who shares a commitment to those policies but will not instantly alienate over half of America’s voters, including many Republicans, and provide an easy target for Democrats and their media allies. That means selecting a more suitable party representative than Donald Trump, the true and ultimate RINO.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.