Column: The GOP’s civil war is just beginning, and the fighting will get worse before it gets better
Many years ago, as a young foreign correspondent, I went to Beirut to cover the Lebanese civil war. On the wall of the newsroom where I worked, someone had posted a running count of how many truces had come and gone. “This ceasefire is #35,” it read. “Next ceasefire is #36.”
I’ve been thinking about those scrawled reminders as I’ve watched the Republican Party’s internecine struggles after the chaotic departure of Donald Trump.
The party has descended into a state of virtual civil war between unrepentant loyalists to former President Trump and those impatient to cast off the chaos of the last four years and begin a post-Trump era. And as in Lebanon, the hostilities promise to be a prolonged series of flare-ups, with neither side willing to permanently lay down arms.
Pro-Trump forces have won the early skirmishes. In the Senate, most Republicans have made it clear that they intend to acquit Trump in his impending impeachment trial. In Arizona, the state Republican Party censured its own GOP governor for certifying that Joe Biden had won the presidential election there.
Impeachment managers say Trump summoned a mob to D.C. and aimed it “like a loaded cannon” at the Capitol. Trump’s defenders say it was free speech.
The next battles will be in the House of Representatives, where Trumpites have demanded that the thoroughly conservative Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming be expelled from the GOP leadership because she voted for Trump’s impeachment. And congressional Republicans are split over how to handle Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a supporter of the pro-Trump QAnon cult, for her embrace of conspiracy theories including the claim that the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were hoaxes.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has denounced Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories,” calling them “cancer for the Republican Party.” But few of the party’s leaders in the House have taken a clear stand on the frightening views of the congresswoman from QAnon.
Anti-Trump Republicans are in the minority so far — but they are standing their ground, raising money, and preparing for battles to come. One, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, has founded a political action committee to campaign for post-Trump Republicans.
“Would we lose the Proud Boys? Maybe. I’m fine with that,” he told my colleague Jennifer Haberkorn.
The main battlefield in the war is likely to become the ballot box, veteran Republican strategist Whit Ayres told me.
“The party is split between a governing faction and a populist faction,” he said. “The populist faction was there before Trump. They aren’t going away. They’ve become a dominant force in Republican primaries. They aren’t dominant among elected officials — but they may be, eventually, if they succeed in winning elections.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be resolved by 2022,” Ayres added. “It’s going to take until at least 2024. You’re going to have to go through a presidential cycle.”
Every political party faces a reckoning after it loses a presidential election. But the debate Republicans are holding is angrier and more dangerous than most, partly due to problems of their own making.
In 2016, Trump looked like a political genius for turning out voters who would have stayed home for a less colorful candidate. But under Trump, the GOP became a narrow, shrinking party, dependent on that base of angry, almost entirely white conservative voters, many of them aging. Trump believed he could win reelection mainly by turning out record numbers of his base, and he came close. He won 10 million more votes than in 2016, but moderate voters including women defected to Biden, denying Trump both the popular vote and the electoral college votes he needed.
Still, the base he built is now the dominant force in the Republican electorate, especially in primary elections — and GOP officeholders know it.
“The vast majority of Republican voters, volunteers and donors are no longer loyal to the GOP,” Rep. Greene said last month in what may be her least delusional statement. “Their loyalty now lies with Donald J. Trump.”
That’s an exaggeration; only about half of Republican voters have told pollsters that they feel more loyalty to Trump than to the party. But it’s still enough to give the former president a handy way to remain influential over the next four years — by offering to campaign for GOP candidates, including Trump loyalists challenging incumbents like Cheney in primaries.
But dependence on Trump’s base could prove disastrous for the party. In conservative House districts, Republicans will still compete for votes by out-Trumping one another. But in statewide and presidential elections, where candidates must appeal to broader audiences, the former president’s legacy is beginning to look like a liability. Since Jan. 6, thousands of voters have changed their registrations from Republican to independent.
“The question is: Do we continue to nominate crazy right-wing populists who go on to lose the general election?” said Ayres, who has advised Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The answer is important, not only for conservatives in those GOP factions, but for liberals and progressives as well.
Democrats will be tempted to root for chaos in the other party’s ranks, since it will make winning elections easier.
But this fight isn’t merely about campaign strategies or even the more elevated principle that a democracy needs at least two sensible parties to work.
The Republicans’ struggle is over more basic principles: telling the truth, respecting the Constitution, keeping political battles nonviolent, accepting the outcomes of elections — and making sure the term “civil war” remains only a figure of speech.
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