It’s one thing for former president Donald Trump to exercise dominion over the Republican Party, which he unquestionably does. It’s quite another for Trump to regularly rub that in Republicans’ faces and force them to kowtow to him — often quite publicly and degradingly.
That’s been the GOP’s unhappy reality over the past six years. Yet for perhaps the first time, a Democrat is actually seeking to use this highly visible dynamic against his Republican opponent.
At a debate Monday night, Ohio Senate candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D) invoked his Republican opponent J.D. Vance’s tortured relationship with Trump.
But rather than focus on Vance’s evolution from harsh Trump critic to enthusiastic backer, he focused more on Trump’s having later gloated about it.
At a rally in Ohio last month, Trump subtly brought up Vance’s past criticisms while reinforcing that he has ultimately brought the ambitious young political newcomer to heel.
“J. D. is kissing my ass! He wants my support so much,” Trump said, adding: “I think he’s running, J.D., on an ‘I love Donald Trump’ policy. Yeah, he said some bad things about me, but that’s before he knew me, and then he fell in love.”
At the debate Monday, Ryan noted that Vance later appeared onstage and spoke approvingly of the visit from the man who had just spoken of him in those terms. He said this showed not only that Vance would do what Trump and Vance’s other benefactors wanted but that it was most concerning because it showed a lack of dignity.
“I don’t know anybody I grew up with, I don’t know anybody I went to high school with, that would allow someone to take their dignity like that and then get back up onstage,” Ryan said. “We need leaders who have courage to take on their own party. And I’ve proven that. And he was called an ass-kisser by the former president.”
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) calls out GOP Senate opponent J.D. Vance for being too subservient toward Donald Trump:
‘We need leaders who have courage to take on their own party … He was called an ‘ass-kisser’ by the former president.’ pic.twitter.com/LPGt5xXYnx
— The Recount (@therecount) October 11, 2022
Ryan later returned to the point, saying, “I’m for Ohio. I don’t kiss anyone’s ass like him. Ohio needs an ass-kicker not an ass-kisser.”
Trump’s comments at the rally were lighthearted. But this is merely the latest in a long line of examples of Trump’s very publicly putting his fellow partisans in their places — a routine that they sometimes go along with willingly, and other times less so.
When former New Jersey governor Chris Christie dropped out of the 2016 presidential primary and endorsed Trump, Trump soon inflicted upon him several indignities. They included having Christie awkwardly stand behind him at a particularly loquacious Super Tuesday news conference, seeming to joke about Christie’s weight, a campaign aide apparently making up a story about Christie fetching McDonald’s for Trump, and Trump needling Christie for having campaigned for president so much — even as Christie was being criticized for absenteeism as governor of New Jersey.
At a 2017 event, the White House seated the president next to Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — who in 2016 said he was “99 percent against Trump” — although Heller didn’t yet support Trump’s proposal to repeal Obamacare. Trump turned to Heller and assured him that he would ultimately be onboard, adding, “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?”
Sure enough, Heller embraced both the ultimate “skinny repeal” bill and Trump in his 2018 reelection campaign, which he lost.
Trump offered somewhat similar comments to Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) during a meeting with senators on gun control in 2018 — although in that instance he did not say the GOP senators were beholden to him, but rather that they were “afraid” and “petrified” of the National Rifle Association.
Then there was Vice President Mike Pence trying to set the world record for praising your boss the most times in a span of three minutes, Trump’s saying that critical Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) had sought his counsel about seeking reelection, and Trump’s dangling the secretary of state job in front of vociferous critic Mitt Romney, only to yank it away after he had made his point about Romney’s kissing his ring.
This has also taken the form of those spurned by Trump nonetheless bending over backward to seek his approval.
Former Trump administration attorney general Jeff Sessions sought a return to the Senate by emphasizing his work with Trump, despite Trump’s repeatedly deriding him and effectively running him out of office. Sessions even ran an ad that The Washington Post summarized accordingly: “Jeff Sessions basically begs Trump for mercy in his first Senate ad.”
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) responded to Trump’s endorsing her primary opponent by recording a video in front of Trump Tower pledging her fidelity.
And, in perhaps the starkest example, Wisconsin state Senate candidate Chris Kapenga (R) last year responded to Trump’s criticisms of him by pleading with Trump to correct the record. Kapenga added that “the power of your pen to mine is like Thor’s hammer to a Bobby pin.” He also asked to be invited to golf with Trump and promised to continue wearing his Trump socks and Trump-Pence face mask regardless of whether Trump responded to his concerns about being impugned.
And none of this, it bears emphasizing, includes all the ways in which Republicans have more subtly contorted themselves to remain in Trump’s good graces — such as supporting a plot to overturn the 2020 election that they knew was baseless and foolhardy, criticizing Trump for the violence on Jan. 6, 2021, and then shortly thereafter pretending none of it ever happened.
But will Ohio voters care about this? Certainly, it’s a state that has trended red during the Trump era, as much of the Rust Belt has. And a recent Siena College poll showed more voters there like Trump (44 percent) than President Biden (39 percent). The idea of a GOP nominee being a reliable vote for Trump’s agenda is probably something Ohioans like more than voters in a lot of other states with competitive Senate races. In many ways, this line of attack might be more valuable to Ryan as a potential rallying cry for the left.
But whether moderate or even slightly conservative-leaning voters want Vance to reflexively support Trump could be another matter. For all Trump’s domination of the GOP, the percentage of Republicans who define themselves as party-first rather than Trump-first has increased since the 2020 election, and moderate voters can still decide races like the one in Ohio. Ryan can credibly argue that he has proved himself more willing to buck his party. Even Monday, he called for Biden not to seek reelection in 2024 — something that would be unthinkable from the likes of Vance in reference to Trump.
What’s clear is that jabs like the one Trump made at Vance’s expense last month reinforce that he is much more interested in demonstrating GOP fealty than he is in boosting his fellow Republicans to help them win. And he’ll keep doing it because it’s vital to his own political prospects, drawing an ever-more-subservient crop of Republicans into politics.
Which is why we should expect way fewer criticisms a la J.D. Vance circa 2016 and a whole lot more gestures akin to what Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake did this weekend.
This is a real photo of Kari Lake vacuuming the red carpet before meeting Donald Trump.
A member of Kari team told us she insisted on personally making sure the carpet was spotless out of “respect for the office of the President of the United States.”
This is servant leadership pic.twitter.com/FNzduy223x
— Benny Johnson (@bennyjohnson) October 10, 2022