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“A fight for the soul of the party.” “Bitter infighting.” “Civil war.”
For the past four years in American politics, if not longer, such figures of speech have tended to attach themselves primarily to the Democratic Party. But in 2021, the shoe of political dysfunction is, for now, on the right foot.
Many Republican leaders and strategists are reportedly desperate to divorce the party from former President Donald Trump, whose impeachment trial for “incitement of insurrection” began on Tuesday, but their base simply isn’t interested: 82 percent of Republicans still approve of Mr. Trump, 64 percent still believe he won the election, and similar numbers say they would join a new party if he started one.
Come 2022, will the party still be in crisis, or will it have found a way back to power? Here are a few paths it might take.
American politics has been dominated by the Republican and Democratic parties since the Civil War, so there’s reason to be skeptical that will change now. In general, electoral systems with single-member, winner-take-all districts, as the United States has, tend to be hostile environments for third (or fourth, or fifth) parties.
To understand why, consider how a third-party challenge might play out: “Let’s say Mr. Trump’s Patriot Party — or whatever he calls it, since there might be legal issues with that name — runs congressional candidates in certain targeted districts,” Michael Tomasky writes in The Times. “And the party wins, say, 17 seats. Pretty good, for a new party.”
But, he adds, “given that Trumpy candidates aren’t likely to do very well in blue or even most purple districts, the net effect is probably going to be that they’ll be unseating 17 Republicans. And what’s the effect of that? To ensure that the Democrats — the radical left socialists! — hold a House majority.”
At the same time, a Republican Party that sticks together will have to confront the electoral limits of Mr. Trump’s cult of personality. In the view of Yuval Levin, the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, those limits may have already been reached.
“The party lost an election that it could have won because it went the way of Donald Trump, and then it lost two more in Georgia that it could have won because it followed in the path of Donald Trump,” he told my colleague Ezra Klein. “And ultimately, the experience of electoral wins and losses is the way that politicians learn lessons. There’s no way around that.”
A handful of powerful Republicans — most prominently Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska — seem to feel the same. Last weekend, Ms. Cheney, the third-most-powerful House Republican, said on Fox that Mr. Trump “does not have a role as a leader of our party” moving forward. “We need to make sure that we as Republicans are the party of truth, and that we are being honest about what really did happen in 2020 so we actually have a chance to win in 2022 and win the White House back in 2024.”
Some of Ms. Cheney’s colleagues mounted an effort to strip her of her leadership position after she voted to impeach Mr. Trump, but the vote failed overwhelmingly on a secret ballot — something Democrats should be pleased about, Eugene Robinson argues in The Washington Post. “It is in everyone’s interest that the G.O.P. become an actual political party again, rather than a cult dedicated — in Sasse’s memorable phrase — to ‘the weird worship of one dude,’” he writes. “For that to happen, lawmakers such as Sasse and Cheney need to win the battle for their party.”
Over the next two years, the non-Trumpist faction of the Republican Party may find that it has nowhere to go but out. The 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment, including Ms. Cheney, are already facing primary challenges, censures and other forms of retaliation from state-level party organizations, a sign that the Republicans’ divisions will only deepen before the next congressional election.
If the midterms end up proving a rout for Republicans who broke with Mr. Trump, those remaining in power may not be able to turn back. “Ask Jeff Sessions how that worked out for him,” Chris Vance, a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party, writes in The Seattle Times. “During his losing primary campaign to regain his seat in the Senate, he tried to argue what a loyal Trumpist he really was, while Trump viciously attacked him. These rebel Republicans may not want a civil war, but that war has already started, and they need to fight back.”
One way to do so, as the Times columnist Thomas Friedman has suggested, might be for the small number of moderate Republican senators — Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, for example — to form their own caucus, if not their own party, which would consolidate their influence over the legislative process. “Even if just a few principled conservatives came together and created a kind of third party in Congress, they could be kingmakers,” he writes. “With the Senate so finely balanced, moderates on each side have significant leverage.”
As Matthew Crandall points out in Deseret News, running to the left of a Tea Party candidate was precisely how Ms. Murkowski won re-election in 2010 as a write-in candidate after she lost the Republican primary, which suggests a third party could be viable. A center-right party, he argues, would have broad appeal in New England governors’ races, Western and Sun Belt Senate races, and House races in the suburbs across the country. And while a center-right party would draw mostly from conservative voters, he predicts it would also draw from suburbanites who voted for President Biden out of distaste for Mr. Trump, effectively blocking Democrats from majority rule in Congress.
In this scenario, the Republican Party could very well break, the Times columnist Ross Douthat argues. If those more moderate members tried to repudiate Mr. Trump’s legacy, the base would be radicalized even further, fortifying its sense of betrayal and persecution in a way that renders the party unelectable in most of the country.
“A party made insane and radioactive by conspiracy theories could keep on winning deep-red districts, but if its corporate support bailed, its remaining technocrats jumped ship and suburban professionals regarded it as the party of insurrection, it could easily become a consistent loser in 30 states or more,” he writes. “If Biden governs carefully, if Trump doesn’t go quietly, if MAGA fantasies become right-wing orthodoxies, then the stresses on the Republican Party and conservatism could become too great to bear.”
This dynamic is already playing out on the state level. In Virginia, two Republicans — one a staunch Trump ally who has refused to disavow QAnon, the other a staunch Trump critic — are threatening third-party bids for the governor’s election this November that could clinch a Democratic victory. A former co-chairman of the Trump campaign in Virginia described the state party as “a dumpster fire.”
What if the Republican Party doesn’t actually need to change its current tack? As the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote last month, the party owes its current state in part to the structure of our electoral institutions that enable it to win control of the White House and Congress without winning a majority of votes, which insulates the party from popular opinion. “Without that advantage, there’s immediate incentive to do something different,” Mr. Bouie wrote.
But that advantage is poised to grow, not shrink, over the coming year. Because of the 2020 census, 2021 will bring another round of congressional redistricting, and Democrats failed to flip any state legislatures that control the process. As a result, the Republican Party will be able to draw favorable district lines for the next decade, which some election experts say could be enough to flip the House in 2022.
If more Republicans stop feeling the need to appeal to the center, the party may continue to drift rightward. “Gerrymandering means that Republicans can also win House seats by appealing to their MAGA base in safe districts,” Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard, writes in The Washington Post. “Where parties are deeply polarized, this tendency is reinforced by primaries and caucuses, which typically engage the most partisan voters. Lawmakers fear angering primary voters, even if this means ignoring their district’s general electorate.”
That feedback loop could spell bad news for people concerned about the Republican Party’s anti-democratic tendencies. Even before the Capitol attack, many political scientists were warning that the party’s commitment to liberal democratic norms had eroded in recent years and that it was coming to more closely resemble authoritarian parties around the world than typical center-right ones.
“The Republican Party has, I think, begun to confront the Trump-led authoritarian wing of the Republican Party, and the importance of this confrontation for the future of U.S. democracy cannot be overstated,” Susan Hyde, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Times. “If the Republican Party remains anti-democracy, then the path to restoring functional if imperfect U.S. democracy becomes nearly impassable regardless of what Biden does.”
The historian Lisa McGirr isn’t hopeful. “Republicans will certainly seek to pivot from the riot, but the nativism, extreme polarization, truth-bashing, white nationalism and anti-democratic policies that we tend to identify with President Trump are likely to remain a hallmark of the Republican playbook into the future,” she writes in The Times. “These qualities will outlive Mr. Trump’s presidency because they predate it.”
But the political scientist Lee Drutman is doubtful that the Republican Party can stay on its current path forever. “By turning the election-rules knobs to their most extreme settings, Republicans might squeeze another decade of power out of the current system,” he writes in The Washington Post. But in the long term, he predicts, they may well “eventually find themselves crushed.”
Where do you think the Republican Party will go from here? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
MORE ON THE FUTURE OF THE G.O.P.
“How Gerrymandering Will Protect Republicans Who Challenged the Election” [The New York Times]
“The GOP Might Still Be Trump’s Party. But That Doesn’t Mean There’s Room For Him.” [FiveThirtyEight]
“How Feasible Is a MAGA Third Party?” [New York]
“Why 1850 Doesn’t Feel So Far Away” [The New York Times]
“What happens when an anti-democratic faction rocks a democracy?” [The Washington Post]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Does Trump have an impeachment defense?
The Rev. R. Douglas Bendall from New Jersey: “Trump’s public words declaring his intention to subvert the outcome of the election if he lost were unheeded words of alarm. His warnings were in themselves sufficient to make plain his intention to subvert the Constitution of the United States.”
Carolyn from Maine: “You comment about Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, but neglect the intent shown by his replacement of top civilian military personnel with loyalists shortly before. Is this why the National Guard was instructed to only direct traffic and why there were long delays in getting backup support for the Capitol Police? ‘It will be wild,’ Trump promised. Why did he watch for hours and not call the insurrectionists down? Look at all the surrounding activities for evidence of intent.”
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