There’s a conflict between two common narratives about Trump and Republicans. The president’s strongest supporters don’t, of course, think of themselves as cultish in any way. They also don’t see themselves having complete control of the party. What they see, instead, is a party in which top officials are not backing Trump as fully as parties usually back allied presidents. That perception of ambivalence is accurate.
People who think the Republican party has become another Trump property have implicitly adopted a different perspective. They think that Trump deserves Republican support less than Bush deserved it, and they are comparing the backing he actually enjoys with an imagined baseline of resistance. Their normative judgments are blinding them to the truth that neither Republican officials nor Republican voters are, as groups, being especially slavish toward Trump.
There is another sort of perspective worth keeping in mind. Bush had nearly uniform support from Republican officials when he took office, came to have stratospheric support from voters in general following the September 11 attacks, and won reelection with the only absolute majority of the vote Republicans have received since the end of the Cold War. Yet his attempts to change the party’s philosophy — so that it would be welcoming to immigrants, support government activism for the poor, advance a multiracial social conservatism, and assiduously promote liberal-democratic values worldwide — nonetheless failed, disappearing without much of a trace soon after his presidency ended.