The Republican Party had already fractured by the time the Capitol’s windows shattered.
With or without an insurrection, Wednesday was going to mark the end of Donald Trump’s usefulness to the Senate GOP. Mitch McConnell’s club of buttoned-up, Burke-quoting worshippers of Mammon (and/or patriarchal Jesus) never had much fondness for the mogul. Only after their efforts to repel the interloper failed — leaving Trump as the only vehicle for averting a second Clinton presidency — did McConnell’s minions climb aboard.
And for a while, it looked like they had mastered the art of the Faustian deal. Dangerous Donald vanquished Crooked Hillary. And once their party had captured the White House, McConnell & Co. agreed to tolerate the president’s Twitter tantrums and assaults on the rule of law while he agreed to rubber-stamp the Federalist Society’s judges, the Koch network’s requested tax cuts, and every GOP-aligned industry’s plan for pillaging the commons. As a result, a 6-3 conservative majority reigns on the nation’s highest court, libertarian billionaires have enjoyed windfall returns on their political investments, and usury is great again.
Then Trump lost.
Between November 3 and this week, the only things sustaining the marriage of convenience between the GOP Establishment and the increasingly unhinged and authoritarian gasbag in the Oval Office were Georgia’s two unresolved Senate elections. With control of the upper chamber on the line, the Republican old guard traded toleration of the president’s pseudo-coup for his cooperation in herding the Trumpian proletariat to the polls. The president proceeded to wage total war against Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state, while forcing David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to endorse the subversion of democracy. It is unclear how much (if at all) this hurt the GOP on Tuesday. But it did not help enough.
Thus, when Establishment Republicans woke up on Wednesday morning, they found themselves in a world they hadn’t known since the spring of 2016 — one where they had little incentive to carry water for a madman. Only 11 GOP senators came to Capitol Hill yesterday with the intention of opposing the certification of the 2020 election’s results, in accordance with Trump’s wishes.
After the president incited a riot that got four people killed inside the U.S. Capitol — and made hundreds of lawmakers and staffers fear for their lives — the Senate’s objector caucus dropped to just eight.
Meanwhile, the majority of Republican senators who supported certifying the election’s results did not just defy Trump’s orders — many refuted the worldview of his voters. Ohio Republican Rob Portman argued from the Senate floor on Wednesday night, “Not a single state recount changed a result, and, of the dozens of lawsuits filed, not one found evidence of fraud or irregularities widespread enough to change the result of the election. This was the finding of numerous Republican-appointed judges and the Trump administration’s own Department of Justice.” McConnell and Mitt Romney were among those who voiced similar sentiments. What’s more, a significant number of Republican senators argued that Trump was culpable for the day’s violence, if only implicitly.
This is not normal. For the past four years, Senate Republicans have studiously avoided condemning Trump’s affronts to liberal democracy and tiptoed around his most hallucinatory claims lest they run afoul of their own voting base. Today, it’s quite possible that there is no issue more salient to Republican primary voters than the (nonexistent) plague of mass voter fraud that cost their hero his rightful reelection. A Fox News poll in December found 68 percent of Republican voters saying the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. In a YouGov snap poll taken Wednesday, a plurality of Republican respondents expressed support for the storming of the Capitol. And yet more than 80 percent of these voters’ representatives in the Senate supported the certification of “the steal,” while 100 percent condemned those who — in the eyes of tens of millions of GOP voters — took a courageous stand against the usurpation of their republic.
The House was a different story. In Congress’s lower chamber, Republican officials are far less insulated from their constituents than those in the Senate. Every GOP House member faced voters last year and will again in 2022. These lawmakers are also, in the aggregate, less wealthy and well educated than their Senate peers and have been in Congress for much less time. Much of McConnell’s caucus consists of decades-long incumbents who prize country-club economics over culture-war theatrics and have accrued enough clout in their states to secure reelection without trying. Tellingly, all eight of the GOP senators who opposed certification on Wednesday are in either their first or second terms in office. Which is to say: Republican lawmakers who came of political age in the tea-party or Trump eras, and who are more accountable to the whims of primary voters, largely rallied behind the president’s authoritarian cause. In fact, after watching their demagoguery trigger an insurrection that threatened their own lives, a majority of House Republicans nevertheless objected to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Asked to justify his opposition to the peaceful transfer of power, one GOP representative told The Hill, “We don’t have a choice,” as the “pressure from Trump and conservative voters” in his district was too strong to resist.
Thus a large ideological and epistemic gap has opened between the Republican Party’s old guard and its Trumpist base. The former never had affection for the celebrity interloper and now has no use for him. On Wednesday, Trump ceased to be a tool for advancing McConnell’s objectives and turned back into what he was in January 2016: a pest that threatens the Establishment’s control over the party apparatus and taints the GOP’s image in the eyes of coveted professional-class voters.
But for much of the Republican rank-and-file, Trump remains a hero. His power is not a means to the passage of tax cuts but an end in itself. In the terrestrial world, Trump may be a billionaire from Queens, whose lived experience bares little resemblance to that of his rally attendees. But in the digital and televisual realms, Trump lives among his people to a greater degree than any president in history. He is an old white Fox News addict with little interest in policy, but much enthusiasm for “owning” the liberal elites who disdain his lowbrow tastes and political incorrectness. He is familiar with every cable-news anchor and fluent in every talk-radio conspiracy theory. And he uses his bully pulpit to affirm the fears and resentments of his fellow denizens of the far-right fever swamp. His presidency has been one of the nightly Hannity viewers, by the nightly Hannity viewers, and for the nightly Hannity viewers.
This overlap in lived (and/or mediated) experience binds a large segment of the GOP base to Trump. His defeat in a “stolen” election won’t shatter that bond. And now that the Republican Establishment is no longer willing nor able to shield Trump from legal accountability or political difficulty, he could turn his legions against it.
Shortly before Wednesday’s insurrection, the president and his son promised to do just that. At his “Save America” rally outside the White House, Trump said of the GOP lawmakers who supported certifying the election results, “They’re weak Republicans. They’re pathetic Republicans … if they don’t fight, we have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight.”
Don Jr. was at least as belligerent. “These guys better fight for Trump. Because if they’re not, guess what? I’m going to be in your backyard in a couple of months!” the president’s scion declared. “The people who did nothing to stop the steal,” he continued, “this gathering should send a message to them: This isn’t their Republican Party anymore! This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!”
Within 24 hours, Trump had declared his own vice-president a turncoat, the Senate’s “weak” Republicans called Red America’s wronged champion a liar and riotmonger, and a long list of the president’s Cabinet members had resigned in protest of his actions.
The GOP elite’s stand against authoritarian Trumpism is belated and self-serving. Administration officials are effectively trading two weeks of employment for a ticket to “the right side of history.” But if such dissent comes at little cost to the individual dissenters, it is not without risk for the party as a whole. Republican officials may feel that yesterday’s catastrophe should have soured their voters on Trump, but there’s little evidence that it did. And, really, why would it? Many of these same Republican elites have spent decades discrediting the nonpartisan media in the eyes of their coalition. Most spent the past four years answering incontrovertible proof of Trump’s malfeasance with whataboutism and alternative facts. Why would the Republican base stop taking the president’s word over CNN’s just because McConnell no longer has cause to cover for Trump’s crimes?
It’s possible that Red America will grow less fractious once Biden takes office. There’s nothing quite like an external enemy to dissipate internal tensions. But Trump and his family are not going away. And neither are the ties that bind this president to the voters whose support Senate Republicans can’t govern without. Will Donald Trump discover message discipline in retirement and focus his fury on the incoming Democratic administration? Or will he stew on the false loyalty of his Republican betrayers and use his bullhorn to inflame divisions beneath the GOP’s tent?
The Republican leaders want Wednesday to mark the end of an era. But they should prepare for the possibility that it was only the beginning.