“I just love you!” Tim Scott bleated at Donald Trump.
The South Carolina senator, who three months earlier had said Trump could not beat Joe Biden in the presidential election, was speaking on stage at a rally in New Hampshire.
Criticism of Scott, who ended his own presidential campaign in November and later endorsed Trump, was swift.
It was all of those things, but the self-abasement of Scott, who harbors ambitions of being Trump’s vice-president, was more importantly an illustration of how Trump remains the master puppeteer of the Republican party.
The vice-presidential race – playing out in real time despite the presidential election being nine months away – is serving as a microcosm of what it means to be a success in the modern-day Republican party.
In the current environment, anyone wishing to remain relevant in the GOP has to dance to Trump’s tune and kiss his big ring, surrendering any self-respect along the way.‘I just love you!’ Tim Scott cannot contain himself in Donald Trump’s presence at an event in New Hampshire last month. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, and Elise Stefanik, a congresswoman from New York, are both seen as potential picks for vice-president. They have each campaigned with Trump and adopted Trump’s racially charged language, in Noem’s case, to the extent that she has been banned from tribal lands in her own state.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a longstanding Trump champion and bizarro star of the rightwing world, is a long-shot candidate, as the race to get Trump’s attention seems set to intensify.
“Allies also say that while loyalty – and having a dependable attack dog who can effectively defend him – is paramount,” Associated Press reported, in a piece about the audition to become Trump’s vice-president.
Beyond the vice-presidential race, it’s clear that Trump continues to embody the GOP. In the Senate and in the House, Republicans are forced to do his bidding or suffer the consequences.
“I think the Republican party believes that he can deliver the voters and the party believes he is the best way to deliver the voters. He wields a tremendous amount of control over the party’s decision-making capacities,” said Shannon Bow O’Brien, a professor in the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin.
“He does a lot of obedience through fear. He does have a very committed base who he says: ‘Jump’ and they say: ‘How high?’ He posts inflammatory things online and people respond and do what he asks essentially.”
After Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman, voted to impeach Trump in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Trump successfully backed a rival candidate against her in her state primary – a tactic he has deployed against other Republicans who aren’t sufficiently obsequious.
“The people who vote in primaries are typically the most ardent and the most faithful,” O’Brien said.
“And so if you have a candidate who Donald Trump has attacked, and has said: ‘This person needs to go,’ they run a serious risk, particularly in those primaries, of having that committed core coming out voting against them.”
The bending of the knee to Trump is everywhere you look.
During a bitter presidential primary campaign, Donald Trump dubbed Ron DeSantis “DeSanctimonious” and suggested he might be a pedophile, while a Trump campaign spokesperson said DeSantis walked “like a 10-year-old girl who had just raided her mom’s closet and discovered heels for the first time”.
DeSantis set all that aside when he dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump in January.The South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, shares a moment with Trump at a rally in Rapid City in September 2023. Photograph: Toby Brusseau/AP
If Trump’s influence only extended to demanding that people praise him, it would be easier to write off. But the former president has essentially forced people to amplify his inflammatory rhetoric about immigration and race, with increasingly overt racist language becoming the messaging of the Republican party.
“I have been to the southern border many times. Some of you have, too. I have witnessed first-hand the invasion taking place. What shocks me is that every time I go, it is more of a war zone than the time before,” Noem said in an address in South Dakota at the end of January.
“The sheer number of illegal migrants coming into the country has made it so that every state is now a border state.”
Noem added: “This issue is about preserving this great nation for our kids and our grandkids.”
The comments didn’t come out of nowhere. Despite his mother, like two of his wives, being an immigrant, Trump has long demonized and dehumanized people seeking refuge in the US. Notably, he did so in December when he claimed people entering the US across the southern border were “destroying the blood of our country”.
And Noem’s invective seems to have worked. Four days after her speech, Trump praised Noem – along with Scott – in a Fox News interview, when asked about who he might choose as his running mate.
“Kristi Noem has been incredible fighting for me. She said, ‘I’d never run against him because I can’t beat him.’ That was a very nice thing to say,” Trump said.
Others are circling too. Stefanik was once seen as a sober Republican thinker, a moderate who was one of the most bipartisan members of the House. She isn’t seen as that any more.
When Trump began calling the people jailed for their part in the January 6 insurrection “hostages” earlier this year, Stefanik immediately jumped on board.
“I have concerns about the treatment of Jan 6 hostages,” Stefanik said in an NBC News interview, a day after Trump had started using the term. In the same interview, Stefanik also refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2024 election – something which no doubt would delight Trump, with whom she has appeared on his primary campaign trail.
Stefanik stayed silent after Trump’s “poisoning the blood” claim, and in January seemed to adopt Trump’s dehumanizing tone when she claimed immigrants were set to “cross our borders and bleed into New York”.Elise Stefanik – once seen as a moderate but now echoing Trump’s rhetoric about January 6 ‘hostages’. Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP
“When we look at Trump’s message around immigration, his message around the border, conversations around banning critical race theory, talking about crime in inner cities, he understands that America is at a very interesting point with respect to race relations. And so one way to keep the divisions alive is to talk about immigrants as if they are the problem,” said Emmitt Riley, a professor of politics and African and African American studies at Sewanee University and the chair of the Conference of Black Political Scientists.
“What we see happening with Republicans is that they now understand that Trump has spoken a message to the base of the Republican party and so if anyone disagrees with Trump, they’re vilified, they’re not likely to be successful when it comes to politics.”
With the back and forth over how to address the number of people seeking to cross the US-Mexico border, Trump is unlikely to tone down his incendiary rhetoric on immigrants and foreigners – invective that Riley says “threatens the very fabric of American democracy”.
And given Trump’s enduring influence and control, the chorus of similar Republican attacks is only likely to grow.
“What’s different about Donald Trump is he’s emerged as a leader of the party, primarily because of voters seeing him as the face of the movement,” Riley said.
“We haven’t really seen a candidate who has been able to exert such powerful influence over almost everything within the Republican party in this way.
“And I think that that is also what makes him a little more dangerous.”