The Republican Party is in deep, deep trouble. We read a lot about Democrats in Disarray, but truth is the Democrats “disarray” is a permanent and mostly healthy struggle within the party over policy and direction. The Republican’s problem is foundational. They are in the midst of a party realignment, with two factions fighting for permanent control, one camp wanting a militant party based on hate, the other a more inclusive party of business. In the middle, one faction haplessly sits in silence and confusion.
The largest of the three factions are hapless bystanders, the party establishment – elected officials, political professionals, and business interests – people like Texas Senator John Cornyn, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, GOP chairperson Rona Romney McDaniel, media mogul Ruppert Murdock, and mega-bucks donor Sheldon Adelson. Their loyalty to the party is stronger than their loyalty to Donald Trump, which is conditioned on his place in power and popularity. The party establishment votes Trump, but are not supporters of the man.
The loudest of the three factions is the Trump supporter, many of whom are not natural Republican. These are people are drawn to Trump through his books and TV show, for his novelty, and because they hear his dog-whistles. They range from celebrity-obsessed fans, internet trolls, fascists, white supremacists, street thugs, attention whores, militia members, Christian fundamentalists, and lifelong contrarian assholes. Most of this faction are apolitical, ignorant of policy, and impatient with parliamentary procedure and the mechanics of democracy. As with Trump, they possess an infantile view of power and politics, one that is based on television-fiction, antithetical to democracy, and unworkable in a non-fictional setting. For his supporters, the party is only as important as Trump believes it to be, and often not even that.
The smallest faction is the party-loyal opposition. It is made up of Never-Trump Republicans, “former” Republicans disgusted with Trump and the current party, and some Republican “minorities” who have a long-term vision for the party as an inclusive pro-business organization that sits politically between Eisenhower and Reagan. While the “opposition’s” numbers are small, they are the only faction who has a solid political ideology, governing philosophy, and concerns that extend past day-to-day outrage. This faction is not a gang of saints. Many of them are responsible for Republican Party policy and tactics that made a Trump presidency possible.
Hoovering over this fight is the blimp-like Donald Trump, a singular figure who, by emitting hot air, maintains a strong following among a minority of Americans, a voting bloc too small to sustain a national party, but one big enough to do significant damage to the Republican Party and democracy. Given his inherent laziness, lack of vision, inability to focus, political ineptitude, refusal to listen, deep ignorance, diminished intelligence, narcissism, ignorance, greed, and paranoia, Trump’s influence in this battle is chaotic rather than constructive. He is not a leader, as much as he is the biggest presence in the room. His primary goal is to consolidate attention.
Because we do not live in a vacuum, this intraparty battle plays out in real time over real issues, which demand real responses that forces the factions into temporary truces and couplings of expedience. Foes becoming friends becoming foes is the normal tenor of politics, a play that is rarely personalized. In the past, presidents and legislators of the same party could split on an issue without anyone taking offense or notice. With Trump, the smallest hint of disloyalty sends him into a rage and invites punishment. Things that would have been politics-as-usual become threats to party stability.
Last week, the Senate and the House passed the recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with veto-proof majorities. The Senate bill passed 84 to 13. The House vote was 335-78. The majority in both votes includes a majority of Republican legislators. The vote count is significant because Trump threatened to veto the NDAA over a directive to rename bases named after Confederate military leaders and because the legislation doesn’t include language that allows Trump to sue social media companies whose users criticize him.
Trump is being forced to choose between two losses. He can veto the NDAA and be embarrassed when the veto is overridden or he can double-back and sign the NDAA as is when it hits his desk. He will certainly attempt to reframe whatever he does as a victory, a face-saving move that does not disguise that Congressional Republicans are starting to think of him as a “civilian” – all fuel for Trump grudges.
Also, last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear Texas’s insane case against four battleground states that went for Biden. Three has been a lot written on the 126 Republican House members who supported the lawsuit, but little coverage of the 70+ GOP House members that refused to sign on to the Texas delusion. Scant attention was paid to Senate Republicans who ridiculed the suit. Reporting on Republican establishment support for the suit ignores the extreme cynicism behind that support, something Never-Trumper Rick Wilson calls “performative douchiness.” Stripped of cynicism, it would be informative to know how many Republican elected officials, including Texas AG Ken Paxton, really believed in the merits of Texas’ suit.
While Mitch McConnell retained his leadership in the Senate, his caucus refuses to uniformly support his extreme hostility towards a COVID stimulus package. Every day, more Republican senators join centrist Democrats in negotiating a new stimulus, efforts supported by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This (temporary alliance) creates fissures not only between McConnell and his fellow Republican senators, but also with Republican House members and increasing irrelevant members of the administration, not to mention Wall Street and the business community. As with former Republican congressional leaders John Boehner and Paul Ryan, once McConnell loses control over his caucus, his power rapidly diminishes.
Last month, Rona Romney McDaniel got Trump’s endorsement to continue as Republican National Committee chair, a key to retaining her position. However, she has little to feel secure about. In the weeks before the 2020 general election, in which Trump and a number of Republican senators lost reelection, she was dealing with fractures within the party. In desperation, she warns that Don Jr’s coke buddy Kimberley Guilfoyle could take control of the party.
Worse is the situation with former Trump lawyer and MAGA/Q conspiracy monger Sidney Powell and crackpot lawyer Lin Wood. Powell, who invented a “military intelligence expert” named Spyder. (Spyder! What is this, a GI Joe episode!), and Wood, also a Q-Anon celebrity have been encouraging right-wingers not to vote in the Georgia run off. So far, Romney McDaniel has failed to beat back the Powell/Wood call for a Georgia election boycott.
Romney-McDaniel also has to deal with Trump’s narcissistic, mercurial fantasy about running in 2024, a headache that has her rushing to assure the eager/anxious presidential could-be’s that she is “neutral.”
That is the rot at the top, but as any arborist knows, if you want to judge the true health of a tree, you start at the roots. The roots of every national political party are the state and local parties. Let’s look at some recent stories on state and local Republicans:
Virginia: The state party is seriously considering ditching their state primary for a nominating convention. The party establishment fears that if they leave the decision of choosing the Republican candidate for governor to the voters, they will get a Trump-like candidate that will get stomped. Over the past four the state party has seen the Democrats take over the state legislature and win the 2017 gubernatorial contest, which could have been the GOP’s if white-supremacist Trumpist Corey Stewart hadn’t made a mess of the GOP primary.
Missouri: A reliably red state, during the Trump years, Missouri has seen incremental gains by Democrats. The governor’s office has flipped from Republican to Democrat to Republican to Democrat thanks to economic disasters and scandals from GOP governors. Every time Democrats capitalize on Republican discord more fractures appear in the party. The rot is so deep that local parties are in blood fights over recently elected party officials.
Georgia: Along with Arizona, one of the messiest scenes in Republican politics. As we know, a majority of Georgia voters chose Joe Biden to be president. Trump immediately cried foul and used every means to get Georgia Republican elected officials to overturn the vote. Both the Republican governor and secretary of state refused to comply with Trump’s wishes and have been attacked by Trump and his supporters. Trump muddied his “strategy” by continuing an ongoing feud he has with Gov. Brian Kemp. The attorneys at Powell, Wood, and Dumbass are telling Republicans not to vote in the Georgia run-off election, causing Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to plead with people to vote for them while they back Trump’s claims that the election was stolen from him.
California: The Golden State’s Republican Party has long been a joke. The last time a California Republican served in the US Senate was in 1992. That was John Seymour and he was appointed to the office. Two thousand six was the last time Republicans won statewide office. After serving out the term he won in a recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection for governor. Steve Poizner won the race for Insurance Commissioner. Four years later, the GOP brand was so rotten, he ran as an independent and lost.
Today, a gaggle of right-wingers are attempting to put a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom on the ballot. Newsom was elected governor in 2018. This is the sixth recall drive against him (the five prior failed to hit the ballot). While a handful of local Republican leaders have signed on to the recall effort, joined by a few national carpetbaggers, no Republican of statewide standing has offered support.
Some conservative pundits warn that Newsom is in trouble, but they fail to acknowledge that Newsom is riding a 59% approval rating, while the only successful recall of a California governor happened when Gray Davis was skidding ground with support from only 24% of the state’s voters. The disconnect between Republican recall freaks, the party establishment, party activists, local parties, the state party, local officials, state legislators and serial shit-talkers is pretty damn insane (and nothing new in California Republican politics).
For brevity’s sake, I will stop at these four states. There are many more where Republicans are fighting each other for control of their state and local parties, and each battle is strange and petty in its own way. In Arizona, Republicans fight over who is to blame for Trump’s defeat and the loss of a senate seat. Alaska Republicans have no idea who is leading their party. Trump supporters in Wyoming are pissed that its congressional delegation has mostly kept quiet on the Trump’s post-election sabotage. The list goes on.
Central to the problem are two issues, both connected. The first problem is one that has been widely acknowledged in Democratic and Republican political circles: The country is undergoing a significant demographics change. The United States is getting younger and more racially/ethnically diverse. And, while demographics are not destiny, this ongoing shift has panicked Republicans enough to wed them to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other extralegal tactics to “win” elections.
The second problem is Donald Trump. To start, let’s go back to the 2016 Republican primary, where Trump was running against Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, and Rick Santorum. The favorite going into the primary was Jeb Bush. Donald Trump was considered the novelty candidate, his race treated as an attempt to revitalize his brand, which it was.
While the political press considered every candidate except Trump to be a national figure, only Trump had a national following. However, because Trump’s following was built in the entertainment industry, not through politics, the political press was blind to his appeal. When he started to take off, pundits started making excuses for Jeb, Ted, Marco, and whomever else Trump dusted in the states. Once he captured the nomination, pundits and political pros gave him little chance at winning the presidency.
When Trump won the presidency there was an instant change of tone among pundits. We were told that everyone was wrong about Trump, that he won because he tapped into America’s economic insecurities and was now the spokesperson for the forgotten working class. Missing from this analysis was the fact that Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College thanks to a small number of votes in three states.
Had America been a little less sexist, the press a little less gung-ho about Clinton’s emails, the Russians a little less active, and Cambridge Analytics a little less savvy, Trump probably would have lost the College. But he won and, with that win, a false narrative started to form: Trump is a man of the people, who can speak to the concerns of everyday people. Trump is a master communicator, a political Rasputin, and orator as great as Barrack Obama. Trump lives on a 4-D chess board, a modern political Sun Tzu who knows the secrets of political dominance. Trump is a winner, impossible to defeat, his influence will live for ages and his impact will be felt for centuries.
Every bit of the Trump political legend is horse-shit, propagated as much by progressives and leftists as it was by the right-wing press. Rather than treat Trump like just another celebrity politician as we did Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, Shirley Temple Black, and Sonny Bono, people organized against him in fear. The opposition took the self-important name of The Resistance, a tag which set Trump up as the supervillain Hitler.
Trump’s twitter shit-talk was mined for meaning. No matter how idiotic the words from Trump’s mouth, his every lie was treated with the same level of gravity, as if fibs about crowd sizes were equal to lies about the Ukraine affair. Worse, Trump’s lies were covered as something unique to him as president. Few reporters noted that Trump is a lifelong liar and proud of it, at least not early on when it was the most important time to do so.
The truth of Trump is that he is and always was a pathetically weak man, whose laziness and sloth is covered up by immense riches given to him by his father. Rather than some brainiac strategist with communication voodoo, Trump is a dull ignoramus with a limited vocabulary and an unimaginative stock of cliché insults which play only to a crowd duller and more ignorant than he. The Trump we see now – the scared coward frantically fear-dialing local party officials to ask for a favor, the baby-man who rambles nonsensical non sequiturs in paranoid style, the bully exposed as the mushroom-dick moron who is totally incapable of winning a fair fight – is the same Donald Trump that took office January 20, 2017…and that is why the GOP has a Trump problem.
One of the primary truths in politics, one universally agreed on by political actors, is: Actions ultimately trump words. Legislation is more consequential than speeches. Results are more important than promises. Winning one election – especially in a fluke – is not enough to be a serious force in politics. True power comes after winning multiple elections not just for oneself but for others. The wins must happen year after year after year. Dominating one election cycle – especially the way Trump did in 2016 – is, at best, “Ice Ice Baby.” People will cheer you like you are Prince, but, without follow up hits, your influence dies the minute your second album fails. You might stay in the spot light, it is hard to swallow that you are more than a sideshow act.
So, right now, we see the GOP mostly chasing Trump’s dream of overturning the election (while lining his pockets), but it isn’t the man that they are trying to impress. It is his fans. The fans have yet to learn that Trump’s mind blowing days are over. The Republican establishment desperately needs Trump fans as much as the Ice needs the ICP, but without Trump what do they have to offer? Tom Cotton? Nikki Haley? Marco Rubio or some other 2016 retread? Don, Jr.? Ivanka?
Let’s say the GOP tries to center the party around a right-wing media star like Tucker Carlson. Problem with Carlson is that unlike Trump, who built his celebrity outside of politics, Carlson is only known for his far-right political entertainment, and is more hated than Trump was in 2016. Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Jon Voight, Lou Dobbs, Kristie Alley, Alex Jones, Scott Baio, Rosanne – the pool of right-wing media celebrities is very unappetizing.
And then there is the far-right and violence. Let’s start with the far-right. Without trying to sanitize the GOP, many Trump supporters on the far-right are Republicans only because Trump is. Many of those opportunistic far-right Republicans are only Trump supporters because, right now, Trump gives them attention and his tendencies echo their far-right agendas. Because Trump and the far-right have a purely transactional relationship, far-right leaders have disowned Trump many times over the past four years, starting with his firing of Michael Flynn. Yes, they come back to Trump, but like Trump they are fickle with their allegiances.
The far-right’s relationship the Republican Party is far different. At worst, it is non-existent. At best, it reeks of strained tolerance, with the far-right far more willing to attack the party and denounce it as enemy, as they did after the Supreme Court refused to hear the Texas election case. Serious or not, when a far-right pundit writes, “BURN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY TO THE FUCKING GROUND,” party officials feel relief and concern. Establishment Trump-toadies like Romney McDaniel would love to shake the overt white-supremacist booger off her finger, but she knows that boogers vote, so she plays mute when the mob hits the street, threatening and engaging in violence.
As long as the Republican Party seeks to remain an establishment political party in a democratic republic, political violence and militancy will confound those efforts. While Americans enjoy controlled violence in entertainment, sports, gaming, and ignore violence met out on Others, we get really squeamish about violence in the street, especially if we might be impacted by it. Very few people are thrilled with armed men marching on state houses or threats of assassination and civil war. In politics, an appeal to violence is not a best seller. Knowing how off-putting political violence is to the mainstream, the GOP knots itself, decrying the “violence” of their opponents while downplaying that of their supporters. A party which condones, accepts or embraces violence rejects the democratic process, intentionally or not.
Longtime Republicans like Michigan Congressman Paul Mitchell look at the far-right threats of violence, the party’s silence, and Trump’s ongoing campaign to destroy democracy and ditch the party. So far, Mitchell stands along. While “Responsible Republicans” “express disappointment” over Trump’s rhetoric and politely “raise concerns” over his supporters’ violence, most refuse to condemn or strongly distance themselves from violent speech and violence. Criticism of either Trump or his far-right supporters and others spewing violent speech is seen as betrayal. Refusing to abandon democracy is betrayal.
Meanwhile, the party establishment, Republican political professions, most GOP elected officials, and the deep-pocked financial supporters on Wall Street and in corporate America know that the party is doomed if it continues to stay quiet about or tolerate violence. The GOP sits awkwardly on edge between legitimate political party and a violent political organization, led by a man who simply doesn’t give a fuck.
None of the above means that the GOP is dead. It is not, but it doesn’t have a long life tied to Trump. Donald Trump is an old man in poor health, who is growing crazier by the day. He longs for the golf course, his happy place. His legacy is 300,000 dead and counting, children kidnapped from their parents, mass corruption, and 50 miles of wall. He has money and legal problems. He is hated. And there is a very good chance that he will have a heart attack or stroke out before 2024.
Trumpism without Trump has no future, simply because Trump won’t allow there to be Trumpism without Trump. Sure, the GOP can gnarl along as the party of hate, but without a celebrity who makes the poison palatable, hate-politics is a dead end. Republican Party professionals know that the future of the party depends on a U-turn away from Trump and they have the proof in the 2020 election.
While the media focuses on a tiny number of Q-Anon freaks running as Republicans, the more significant stories are elsewhere. Republican women had a strong year. Knocking off Democrats, Republican women increased their presence in Congress from 22 seats to 36. A number of these women are of Asian and Latin American descent. In 2020, Republicans polled slightly better among African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, and LGBT people in races where business-conservative Republicans ran non-racist/non-xenophobic/non-Trump-like campaigns and faced a Democrat who clung to the center.
In 2020, Republicans were successful when and where they adapted to America’s leftward political drift. Republicans who ignored the noise at the top and acknowledged the human-created climate crisis, the seriousness of the pandemic, and the problems of income inequality were competitive in purple and slightly blue districts. In other words, Republicans who adapt to the nation political shifts – not their party’s – are the key to future success of the party.
The challenge these Republicans face is how to deal with hardcore Trump supporters who would destroy the party in order to save their idea of it, without alienating those very people before Trump dies. They also must somehow entice Never-Trump Republicans and former Republicans back into a party that refuses to condemn Nazism. Without the Never-Trumpers, the party lacks people with deep experience in bipartisan politics, activists reject Mitch McConnell’s serial NO’s.
The Republicans face a monumental challenge, but it can be done. The Democratic Party realigned itself from the party of Jim Crow to the standard bearers of Civil Rights. It was a transformation that took decades and drove loyal members out of the party. It was chaotic and sometimes violent, but it happened and the Democratic Party was the better for it. There is no reason why the GOP cannot make a similar transformation. The question is, Does the party have the will to change? Or will it die in the hands of party poopers?