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Op-Ed: The Trump approach to politics may have captured the GOP permanently

Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Committee convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Donald Trump speaks on the first day of the Republican National Committee convention, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C.

(Associated Press )

The past few tumultuous weeks in American politics have revealed a sharp split within the normally unified Republican ranks. This rift is playing out most directly on the issue of Donald Trump’s impeachment, but has much deeper roots.

Elements of this rift could be seen throughout the Trump presidency, with most Republican officeholders and party leaders enthusiastically endorsing pretty much any claim that Trump made, no matter how false or inane. Only a tiny number — most notably, Sens. Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake — spoke up. But this latter group seems to have found a stronger voice since the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

On one level this split is about Trump. Some Republicans see him as uniquely capable of turning out lower-income white voters or they fear those voters being unleashed against them (both electorally and physically). Others want Trump gone from the Republican Party, seeing him as antithetical to whatever remains of ideological conservatism as well as a barrier to their own presidential ambitions. And some see him as politically costly, having undermined two winnable Senate runoffs in Georgia.

But the split runs deeper than concerns about Trump. At the core of this recent rift is a commitment to democracy, now revealed by the insurrection and votes to disqualify states’ electors. The Republican officials who promoted the conspiracy theories and fueled the lie of a stolen election demonstrated a hostility to democratic elections. The party’s other faction is willing to accept the outcome of an election even if it is not happy with its results.

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This struggle in the GOP quite simply puts American democracy on the line.

Recent work by political scientists characterizes the struggles within conservative parties as key for democracy. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book “Let Them Eat Tweets” addresses what they call “the conservative dilemma.”

The core of this dilemma is that in modern democracies, the conservative party tends to be more associated with wealth — large corporations, business leaders, the financial sector, etc. But there are, of course, fewer wealthy people than poorer people, so the conservative party is doomed to lose in democratic elections unless they can pull off a few things.

One is to essentially govern as a minority party, taking advantage of institutions like the Senate and the electoral college that allow them to prevail even when winning fewer votes or by making it harder for poorer people to vote.

The other approach is to bring cultural cleavages into the political debate, drawing voters’ attention to issues like racial animosity, gun rights, abortion rules and same-sex marriage instead of wealth inequality. As Hacker and Pierson wrote, “In focusing attention on social and cultural cleavages rather than economic divisions, can conservatives generate sufficient vote support to compete in elections without destabilizing a country’s politics? Or do they end up promoting conflicts that are increasingly divisive, dangerous, and uncontrollable?”

For this reason, it is quite often the conservative party’s own commitment to democratic norms that determines whether a democracy succeeds or fails. We see the Republican Party struggling with these very issues today. Given the size of the faction apparently willing to overturn an election, the prospects for a shift aren’t good. Still, there has been criticism of Trump for the insurrection, even by the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell. And Republicans are witnessing the political dangers of pushing further in this direction.

Could this lead to an actual split within the Republican Party? Might Trump’s loyalists form a new Patriot Party?

To get a sense of what a short-term split might look like, consider the Colorado gubernatorial race of 2010. Much of the state expected that Rep. Scott McInnis would win the Republican nomination for governor and go on to pose a serious challenge to then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. But a scandal erupted right before the primary derailing McInnis’ campaign, handing the nomination to the little-known Dan Maes. Maes was a Tea Party activist who had mostly gotten publicity through his embrace of paranoid conspiracy theories, including his claim that a Denver bike-share program was paving the way for control of the country by the United Nations.

Colorado Republican leaders could have simply rallied behind their nominee. But roughly half of them refused to do it. Instead, they backed former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who was running as a third-party candidate. They knew full well that they were splitting the party and probably handing the Democrats the governor’s office, but they felt it was more important to preserve the principles of the Republican Party than to support a candidate they found an embarrassment.

Could national Republicans see something of a split like this today — with a significant portion bolting to rebuild something like the Reagan-Bush coalition that preceded Trump? The ingredients for a party split are all there. But they were also there in 2016, when Republican primary voters picked a presidential nominee that most of the party establishment had publicly called unfit for office. The party leaders ended up backing him anyway because the costs of splitting the party were just too great.

Those costs may still be too great — and intense political polarization makes the party even less likely to fracture. This is not the most divided a national party has ever been. In the mid-20th century, the major parties contained both segregationists and civil rights backers. They still largely managed to keep their ranks together (though there were some splits, as in 1948 when Southern segregationists briefly abandoned the Democrats), at least until the mid-1960s.

More likely, we’ll see the GOP factions fight it out in primaries in the next few cycles. The public backlash against Trump notwithstanding, it’s not clear whether the Trump approach to politics has captured the Republican Party permanently.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of “Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020.”


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