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Editorials of The Times

Posted June 8, 2018 1:30 a.m. EDT

The Cult of Trump

Forget policy. Forget ideology. Forget hating Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. From Indiana to Arizona to Ohio, the name of the game for Republican candidates this primary cycle has been to flaunt their Trump love. And woe unto anyone deemed insufficiently smitten.

This week’s primary elections underscored the striking degree to which President Donald Trump has transformed the Republican Party from a political organization into a cult of personality. By contrast, Democrats show signs of taking a more pluralistic approach, fielding candidates who are willing and even eager to break with their national leaders — the House minority leader, Pelosi, in particular.

For Republicans tempted by Trump apostasy, Tuesday’s clearest cautionary tale was that of Rep. Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican. Two years ago, Roby was considered a real comer. But then she got all squeamish about the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump shared some of his more pungent dating tips, and she called on him to leave the race.

Unfortunately for Roby, her district ultimately went for Trump by 32 percentage points. And although she has been a loyal Trump supporter ever since his win, many voters back home are still sore about her brief heresy. Throughout this primary season, Roby’s Republican opponents were quick to bring up her 2016 comments, and come Tuesday, the congresswoman failed to win the nomination outright. She’s now facing a runoff next month against former Rep. Bobby Bright, who ran ads accusing her of having “turned her back on President Trump when he needed her the most.” (Bright is the party-switching former Democrat from whom Roby wrested her House seat in 2010.)

On the opposite end of the Trump-impact spectrum is John Cox, a Republican businessman running for governor of California. With registered Republicans down to 25 percent of the Golden State electorate (putting them slightly behind independent voters), the party is as likely to capture the governorship this year as Jeff Sessions is to be the next head of the American Civil Liberties Union. Nonetheless, Republicans needed a candidate at the top of the ticket to increase turnout for all the down-ballot House seats they’re fighting over. With the state’s wacky primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, that was hardly a given. (A longtime senator, Dianne Feinstein, will be facing a fellow Democrat.) But late in the race, Trump came out strongly for Cox, tweeting his praises, energizing the troops and propelling him to a solid second place behind Gavin Newsom, the Democratic lieutenant governor.

It is, of course, not unusual for presidents to have political coattails — and for the party wandering in the wilderness to show greater openness to new ideas and new kinds of candidates. The Democratic approach may be more a function of default (or desperation) than design, but Pelosi still deserves props for not seeking to kneecap candidates, like Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania and Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, who have said they would not support her as speaker. With a bit of luck, genuine ferment and debate among Democratic candidates and officeholders over the right direction on issues like trade and immigration might result in at least one party oriented around a set of ideas.

Assuming that American democracy endures, a party organized around a single extreme personality seems like a brittle proposition. But Trump’s grip on the Republican psyche is unusually powerful by historical standards, because it is about so much more than electoral dynamics. Through his demagogic command of the party’s base, he has emerged as the shameless, trash-talking, lib-owning fulcrum around which the entire enterprise revolves.

Forget the long-standing Republican orthodoxy about the wonders of free trade. If Trump says tariffs are the way to go, his base is good with that. Even Republican lawmakers who fear a trade war seem disinclined to push very hard to prevent one. (Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has dismissed proposed legislation aimed at curbing the president’s tariff fever as an “exercise in futility.”)

As for any misbehavior uncovered by the Russia inquiry, Republican voters are having none of it. If Trump says it’s all part of a deep state plot, that’s good enough for them. Three-quarters of Republicans embrace his claim that the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

The bulk of Republican lawmakers, even those who find Trump appalling, are increasingly loath to cross him — at least in public. In April, conservative commentator Erick Erickson recounted in graphic detail his conversation with a GOP congressman who, while publicly Trump-philic, fulminated obscenely off the record about the president.

Such timidity is hardly surprising. Trump’s favorability rating among Republicans is at 87 percent — the second-highest rating within a president’s party at an administration’s 500-day mark since World War II. (George W. Bush was slightly higher following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.) The absence of Republican criticism of Trump, in turn, serves to reinforce his popularity, creating a cycle cravenness that has now made it risky for even the staunchest of conservatives to question Trump.

Every now and again, someone sticks a neck out. Consider poor Rep. Trey Gowdy. In 2015, the South Carolina Republican became a conservative darling as head of the House’s Benghazi inquiry. But last week, Gowdy, now chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, went on television and undercut the Spygate conspiracy theory that Trump has been peddling so vigorously. Gowdy not only batted down the term “spy,” but dared to defend the FBI. Quicker than you can say “collusion,” the congressman got dog-piled by Trump fans in the conservative media. On the heels of Gowdy, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, ventured forth this week with his own questioning of the Spygate fantasy. This may well signal growing unease among congressional Republicans with Trump’s conspiracy mongering. On the other hand, it’s probably not coincidental that Gowdy and Ryan have both announced they are retiring at the end of this term.

A week ago, John Boehner, the former House speaker, neatly captured the state of his party during a policy conference in Michigan. “There is no Republican Party,” he told the crowd. “There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Sounds peaceful. But where will the party, not to mention the country, be when it finally wakes up?

Fair Housing’s New Champions

Soon after taking office, Ben Carson, the housing and urban development secretary, tried to derail a voucher program that helps disadvantaged families rent homes in healthy, high-opportunity communities with better jobs, schools and transportation, as a way of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

In December, the U.S. District Court in Washington wisely blocked that move. Now, Republican and Democratic Congress members are standing up for the principle of economic integration, supporting a House bill that would require the Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove some of the barriers that trap low-income families in impoverished communities, casting long shadows over their lives.

A 2015 Harvard study inspired the legislation. It examined a federally designed experiment involving thousands of families in five large American cities, and found that young children whose families moved during the 1990s from high-poverty housing projects to neighborhoods offering good jobs and schools grew up to be better-educated, more economically successful adults. These moves increased the adult earnings of children in all five cities — a result not seen when other interventions had been studied — and this was true for whites, blacks and Hispanics, for girls as well as for boys. Strikingly, the Harvard researchers found that each year spent in a better neighborhood during childhood increased earnings in adulthood.

These findings underscored the idea that integrating poor families into mixed-income communities could be a key to breaking poverty cycles. What’s more, research shows that a policy of economic integration would pay for itself: Income gains would generate sufficient tax revenues to offset the cost of the housing voucher.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are understandably excited about this growing body of research. The House Financial Services Committee made reference to it last month when it sent the Housing Choice Voucher Mobility Demonstration Act to the House floor for consideration. The conference report noted that many of the families served by HUD were unable to move up economically because they were trapped in areas with weak schools and few well-paying jobs. Describing gains documented in the research as “remarkable,” the House committee said that the research ‘'gives hope that family mobility could hold the key to arresting generational poverty in families served by HUD.”

The bill would create about 2,000 new rental vouchers for families with children. It also would allow public housing authorities to help tenants with security deposits and services, including outreach to private landlords, housing search assistance, financial coaching and post-move efforts so families could adjust to life in their new neighborhoods. The hope is to find out which strategies are most cost-effective and beneficial.

The enthusiasm coalescing around the idea of economic integration is especially encouraging at a time when HUD is turning away from its historic mission as the guarantor of fair housing access for the poor. A positive next step would be for the Senate to embrace the House version of the legislation and push this promising experiment forward.

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