It was around the middle of July 2015 that the Republican Party’s slowly roiling identity crisis suddenly boiled over.
Donald Trump had leveraged fervent anti-immigrant rhetoric to surge to the lead of the field vying for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination. After the party’s 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), attacked Trump for having “fired up the crazies” on the immigration issue, Trump fired back, disparaging the war hero’s service. Many party leaders (and Trump’s primary opponents) rubbed their hands giddily: at last Trump had gone too far! In short order, they assumed, they’d be rid of Trump and his noxious efforts to reshape their party.
On the off chance that you recently emerged from a multiyear voyage to a distant planet and this article is serving as your first reintroduction to the events of the past six years: They were not rid of Trump.
Trump’s 2016 candidacy was built on the understanding that conservative media was capturing — and nurturing — a fervent anti-establishment sentiment that first caused the party palpitations in 2009 and 2010. The tea party of that era was effectively corralled through top-down organization, though its rejection of elites and party incumbents occasionally broke out of containment. But Trump was something else entirely.
In 2010, Republican leaders often hoped the tea party would go away but had to pretend that they wanted it to stick around. They had to play this game of acquiescing to and agreeing with the group’s demands to tamp down on primary concerns even while they understood the risk of encouraging the movement’s goals and leaders. It sort of worked, for a while. The party lost some winnable Senate seats but overperformed in 2014, in part thanks to outcry over immigration that, in a bit of foreshadowing, helped cost the Republican House majority leader his seat. By the time the 2016 primaries were on the horizon, it seemed like the most anti-establishment contender would be Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — another threat the establishment felt it could weather.
Trump was unexpected. His emergence was unexpected, and his resilience was unexpected. Republicans spent months assuming that he’d collapse, assuming — like so many others — that he’d eventually turn enough people off that his political fortunes would crumple. But while Republicans had learned to try to redirect the energy of the base, Trump was channeling it.
The primaries arrived, and Trump started winning. Republicans scrambled to figure out who to position against him but, in part because so many still believed that he’d collapse on his own, no one wanted to clear the path for an opponent. (Contrast that with what happened on the Democratic side in 2020.) By the time Trump was within range of securing a majority of delegates, there was a scramble to figure out if he could be stopped at the convention. Then he got his majority, and it was over. The party had to stick with him until November when, once again, they assumed he would lose.
This assumption was similarly incorrect.
Over Trump’s four years in office, there was an obvious effort to continue the same pattern that the tea party movement fostered. Establishment Republicans viewed many of the president’s actions and comments with skepticism or disdain but decided the safest thing to do was just to wait the whole thing out. No point in incurring the wrath of the base; all of this would end soon. Some, like much of the base, probably convinced themselves that Trump’s positives were worth his negatives. This was the thermostat constantly being adjusted: How much one cared about his tweets relative to the judges he was nominating or the frustration he was provoking in the left. It was uncomfortable, sure, but it’s not like it was a dance they’d have to do forever.
As little as many Republicans wanted a Democratic president, it seems safe to assume that, as was the case for many Americans who are generally indifferent to politics, the likelihood of a Joe Biden victory last year offered an opportunity for respite. Yes, Republicans wanted a Republican president, especially one like Trump who was so pliable when he wasn’t so painful. Still, the idea of not having to constantly reorient themselves to comport with Trump’s current position and not having to feign ignorance about his tweets probably seemed like a bit of a silver lining. Now, finally, it might actually be going away.
But during Trump’s five years commanding the energy of the Republican base, the party flipped. It wasn’t an establishment corralling an insurgency; it was an establishment subsumed to the insurgents. The party didn’t bother to cobble together a policy platform in 2020 because the campaign was entirely centered around Trump and Trump himself had no real policy ideas anchoring his candidacy. The Republican establishment went from an experienced crew tacking against difficult winds to sailors at the mercy of the winds. And in the wake of the 2020 election, there was a new hurricane: Trump’s effort to salvage his pride by insisting that the election had been stolen.
If you don’t deal with this every day, it’s hard to overstate how damaging this claim has been. Those of you who are not interstellar astronauts are obviously familiar with the events of Jan. 6, the riot at the U.S. Capitol that stemmed directly from Trump’s insistences and advocacy. But you may not be familiar with how far the tendrils of these claims about rampant voter fraud reach, wrapping themselves around scores of unfounded claims and a library’s worth of erroneous statistical claims, unsupported memes and misguided testimonials. A more apt analogy: It’s a hydra of misinformation in which slicing off one false claim simply spurs Trump’s base to elevate a dozen more. The effort to combat this misinformation is almost necessarily insufficient in the face of a fervency that, for many people, is as essential to their belief system as the idea that he didn’t lose is essential to Trump’s self-esteem. For every article that The Washington Post writes making clear that a purported piece of evidence is untrue or incorrect, there’s an ocean of right-wing media outlets and personalities willing to tear it down or redirect people somewhere else.
The energy devoted to proving the narrative at the heart of Trumpism is unmatchable by objective media outlets. And so half of Republicans believe that there is solid evidence that the election was stolen, which there isn’t. There have, instead, been a grand total of 16 people who face charges related to casting illegal votes, a number equivalent to 1 of every 10 million votes cast for president last year.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack — and an infamous phone call with the then-president — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) directly addressed the toxicity of Trump’s claims about the election. Even though the majority of House Republicans (including McCarthy) voted in support of the rioters’ goal to block Biden’s victory, McCarthy a few days after the attack stated that Trump bore blame for the violence and should be censured. It was a moment not unlike that brief moment in the wake of the 2012 election when Fox News’s Sean Hannity embraced broad immigration reform. In each case, the audible will of the Republican base quickly changed minds and, just as Hannity became an immigration hard-liner (and Trump cheerleader), McCarthy scaled back his criticism of Trump.
The Trump problem hadn’t gone away just yet. The new manifestation for McCarthy is that he has a member of his leadership team, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who refuses to shrug at the surreality that has gripped the party. Cheney has continued to point out that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen and that Trump is being dishonest, a not-inaccurate approach but one very much at odds with the party’s preferred approach of ignoring the problem.
Much of the Republican base is not interested in rejecting Trump’s approach. You can see that in the results of the primary in Texas’s 6th Congressional District, where an anti-Trump Republican finished in one-millionth place. (This is a slight exaggeration.) You can see it in the response to Cheney and others who supported the effort to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attack, many of whom have been pilloried by their state parties. McCarthy suggested censuring Trump instead of impeaching him; instead, the Wyoming GOP censured Cheney. The Utah Republican Party nearly censured Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) over the weekend, an almost-unthinkable change of fortune for the party’s 2012 nominee. Instead of censure, a number of people in the room instead booed him.
Where does this go? What happens to a party that’s refocused not only around a former president but on a demonstrably false set of claims that president advocates? What happens when it’s easier for the party leadership to oust a member criticizing that dishonesty than to confront the dishonesty itself?
The thinking seems to be that, well, the party can ride it out. It can throw out enough culture-war distractions to somehow regain control of the base. Maybe Trump decides to retire. Maybe the conservative media world turns its attention to something else, anger at Biden or something. Maybe Republicans will fall back in love with conservative economic theorists. Maybe something else will emerge and this toxic focus on 2020 and on Trump will dissipate.
Maybe everything will just fly back into Pandora’s box. Maybe this time, that will happen.