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Down-Ballot Republicans Jump at Chance to Emulate Trump

Trump is much more a true expression of the GOP than an aberration from it.

Sen. John McCain speaks at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry's Annual Legislative Luncheon in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 25, 2014. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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When Trump finally took the stage at 1:40 pm on October 28, the estimated 2,000 people at the Armory Ballroom in the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire had entered a state of near-euphoria. Minutes earlier, I had overheard a middle-aged couple whispering that the FBI had “reopened” its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Within seconds, a local radio producer appeared and began asking them for their reactions. I didn’t hear anyone else mention the news, but I didn’t need to. It was immediately apparent that if one person had seen this update, the entire ballroom would be aware of it in a matter of seconds.

Trump’s opening line confirmed that, yes; everybody was in on the latest Clinton scandal. “I need to open with a very critical, breaking news announcement,” Trump said, speaking in the studied cadence of an entertainer knowing he’s about to give his audience exactly what they want. The cheering had already begun. “The FBI” — dramatic pause — “has just sent a letter to Congress, informing them they have discovered new emails pertaining to the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s investigation.” As has become routine at Trump’s rallies, the crowd chanted “lock her up,” the de facto mantra of the Republican party and the only sentiment currently uniting the party.

It has become a political truism this year that whatever happens to Trump, something called “Trumpism” is here to stay. “Trumpism” as a phenomenon distinctly separate from Donald Trump is difficult to define, at least as a distinct set of beliefs, because Trump’s policies are often fluid and unspecified. But a working definition could be the willingness to stoke bigotry openly rather than covertly, and to break from movement conservative orthodoxy obsessed with the implementation of austerity policies for the poor.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Indeed, one of Trump’s few real political insights was that he could rail against trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership as a way of positioning himself a protector of US jobs, while demonizing immigrants and people of color to signal that the only workers he intended protect were white ones. Recent polling found that the Republican base, especially those who support Trump, has largely turned against so-called free trade. The party itself hasn’t caught up, though GOP members of the House of Representatives like Walter Jones and John Duncan are strong backers of Trump’s “America First” protectionism and anti-immigrant policies.

In most ways, though, Trump is fully an expression of decades of mainstream GOP thinking, if only turned up louder. Tax cuts for the rich, military spending with no plan for how to pay for it, climate change denial, obstruction of the Democratic Party’s agenda at all costs and an ability to appeal to an almost exclusively white audience are standard fare for Republicans.

So it’s not surprising that Trump-style characteristics can be seen in dozens of candidates down ballot. Sen. John McCain, who is running for reelection in Arizona, adopted Trump’s total-war approach to politics when he promised to prevent any Clinton Supreme Court nominees from being confirmed by the Senate.

For all the obvious animosity between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has a good chance of being reelected but could be dethroned as speaker, both approach the Affordable Care Act with the same vague promise to “repeal and replace” — details to come, eventually.

But it’s not just high-profile politicians who echo Trump, and vice versa. Sen. Richard Burr this week followed Trump’s media-blackout policy when he began refusing to provide the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his schedule until the paper “demonstrate[s] the ability to cover this race from a balanced point of view.”

Sen. Mark Kirk recently channeled Trump’s open racism when he questioned the patriotism of his opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, because she is the daughter of an interracial couple. “My family has served this nation in uniform, going back to the Revolution,” Duckworth said. Kirk responded: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington,” implying that Duckworth’s maternal lineage (her mother is Thai of Chinese ancestry) somehow cancels out the fact that her white father had indeed traced his roots to the American Revolutionary War.

Texas Rep. Brian Babin defended Trump’s comments that Hillary Clinton is a “nasty woman” on the Alan Colmes show, saying: “I think sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty.” Babin, like Trump, opposes resettling Syrian refugees in the United States, but in 2015 Babin went even further and introduced a bill to entirely suspend the refugee resettlement program until further notice. That bill has a whopping 85 co-sponsors, all Republicans. In a recent statement, Babin strongly implied that he thinks Hillary Clinton should be in jail for her use of a private email server, and praised the FBI for what he inaccurately referred to as “reopen[ing] its investigation.”

There are many Republicans who are trying to have it both ways with Trump: to stay silent or offer only muted criticisms of his most controversial statements, while still supporting the top of the ticket. In the days after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, for instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that nine of Georgia’s representatives in the House had not responded to Trump’s comments. Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson continued to support Trump in a debate in late October, despite calling Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women “totally inappropriate.”

Wisconsin Republicans down ballot also stood by Trump in the immediate wake of the Access Hollywood tape. One of the more controversial Wisconsin politicians, Rep. Glenn Grothman — a Tea Party favorite first elected to the House of Representatives in 2014 and reliable Trump backer — has suggested that voter ID laws are beneficial because they help Republicans. Grothman holds extreme anti-worker views, including proposals to get rid of paid sick leave and the weekend. In 2010, he argued, “a lot of women like to stay at home and have their husbands be the primary breadwinner,” and said the country was waging a “war on men.”

Plenty of up-and-coming Republicans have adopted Trump’s rhetoric wholeheartedly. Matt Gaetz, a Florida state politician running to represent the Florida panhandle in the House, ran a TV spot calling on the government to “build a wall,” and “kill radical Muslim terrorists.” Unsurprisingly, Gaetz was an early supporter of Trump.

The hyper-conservative chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Jim Jordan, continues to support Trump, although his legislative agenda is more representative of typical movement conservatism. Still, he believes Clinton should have been prosecuted, and shares Trump’s animosity toward House Speaker Paul Ryan as being too willing to appease liberals.

As of now, there is no figure in the GOP quite like Donald Trump, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, who share distinct qualities with him. The symbiotic, or perhaps parasitic, relationship that Trump has with the GOP is first and foremost an inevitable result of decades of race baiting and fear mongering of the other by party elites. Trump’s willingness to support the social safety net, with the implicit promise that it would benefit whites at the expense of every other group, could prove a winning template for future Republicans who want to replicate his success and capitalize on anti-elite sentiments.

There are plenty of down-ballot candidates who are already halfway there — the question is which of them will pick up his mantle and don it themselves if Trump loses. If he wins, expect a wave of Republicans to rush to his side.

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