AGAINST THE GRAIN

The crackup of the Republican Party

There are no good political options for leaders going forward. The GOP is hopelessly divided, and there’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

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Jan. 12, 2021, 8 p.m.

The mob attack on the Capitol last week overshadowed another momentous political story, which broke just hours earlier: Democrats retaking the Senate majority, thanks to a pair of victories in a traditionally Republican stronghold.

The impact of losing both Senate runoffs in Georgia can’t be overlooked as analysts assess the impact of the Republican Party’s looming divorce from President Trump. The victories of Democratic Sens.-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff proved that there’s a steep political price that Republicans will pay for abject subservience to Trump. Indeed, many GOP leaders were already beginning to break those bonds—even before the rioting that took place the next day.

The Georgia races offered as close to a political-science test, namely assessing the toxicity of Trump, as possible in elective politics. Even as Joe Biden narrowly carried the state in November, Republican candidates led their Democratic counterparts in the twin Senate contests. But after two months of Trump’s election denialism, presidential threats against Republican elected officials, and the Senate candidates’ decision to side squarely with the president, a critical mass of MAGA voters decided to stay home and a small slice of suburban Republican voters couldn’t stomach the MAGA-fied Republican Party anymore.

The long-term health of the GOP in three must-win, red-leaning battlegrounds, even before Wednesday’s riots, was already looking grim. In Arizona, where the Republican Party is led by an extreme right-wing conspiracist now focused on lobbing nasty attacks against Cindy McCain, Republicans have lost the presidential race and both Senate seats in the past three years. Two of the state’s Republican congressmen (Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs) reportedly coordinated with Wednesday’s protest organizers. In Georgia, Democrats now hold both Senate seats after winning the state’s Electoral College votes for the first time since 1992. Trump is at war with the state’s conservative Republican leadership, while Republicans in the state just elected a QAnon-believing conspiracy theorist to Congress (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene). In Texas, a reliably Republican state where Democrats have been gaining ground, party chair Allen West suggested seceding from the United States.

Even as signs of political rot within the GOP’s institutions were apparent, Republicans chose to overlook all the warning signs. The prevailing thinking within the party after Election Day was that the unexpectedly strong performance by downballot Republicans proved that they could indulge the MAGA die-hards as part of a big-tent coalition, capitalizing on progressive excess to keep the disparate factions in line. The Georgia Senate runoff results demonstrated that was always a fantasy, underscoring that the interests of an unconstrained Trump and the so-called Republican establishment would be at odds as he left office. The Trump-fomented rioting of last Wednesday underscored the real-life costs of indulging a madman, and the political reality that the Republican Party is now irredeemably split. There’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Interviews with dozens of Republican officials and strategists over the past few days illustrate the total confusion about the party’s direction. No one has a good handle on what the Grand Old Party will look like in the future. Among the establishment crowd, there’s a rough consensus that a future Republican Party won’t have anything to do with Trump anymore, a move that would precipitate a GOP split. Businesses are cutting off donations to Republican election denialists, social-media platforms are taking down extremist pro-Trump content, and even sympathetic celebrities want nothing to do with the disgraced president.

One former White House adviser said the MAGA die-hards are likely to end up forming their own party, given that they’re loyal to a person, not an institution. “There will be the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Trumpists,” the source said. Remember: around 70 percent of Republicans still view Trump favorably, and 45 percent of Republicans say they support Trump more than the Republican Party. The trendlines are moving against Trump, but there’s still a significant share of Republicans who remain sucked into the president’s cult of personality. A divided GOP would cripple Republicans heading into what once looked like a productive midterm election.

There are other plausible scenarios. The grimmer outlook would be that the Trumpists maintain control of party infrastructure, forcing the growing roster of Trump critics to break away from the party entirely. This would be a formula for Republican extinction, but given the mood of the grassroots activists and the trajectory of state parties, it’s not out of the question.

The more benign scenario would be that mainstream Republican leaders reassert their control over the party message, Wednesday’s violence turns a majority of Republicans away from Trump’s political nihilism, and traditional candidates fend off primary challenges in two years. That was the prevailing thinking before this week’s Capitol insurrection, but the degree of radicalization within the party makes that outlook now seem far too sanguine. (This would be the scenario where House Conference Chair Liz Cheney, a rare voice of reason within the leadership, emerges as the next House Republican leader.)

After Trump won the nomination in 2016, Republicans made a deal with the devil in supporting him, securing policy victories and judicial appointments in exchange for overlooking the president’s darkest impulses. As the costs of looking the other way became more apparent, the depth of the denial only grew deeper. Now the debt is due, and the costs of indulging a wannabe tyrant will haunt the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.

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