In any contract or relationship, the person who’s willing to walk away holds all the leverage. That dynamic is the key to understanding Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party writ large as well as David Perdue’s primary challenge against Brian Kemp for the Republican nomination for governor in Georgia, which is the same phenomenon in miniature.
Go back to the time before Trump won the Republican nomination, when the Republican establishment and conservative movement elite stood opposed to him shoulder to shoulder. That opposition seemed to many of us to present an insurmountable obstacle to Trump’s election in November. But the right’s complaints about Trump, however loud, contained a crucial escape hatch. They were framed almost exclusively in pragmatic terms: Trump was, as National Review put it in its scathing editorial, “a menace to American conservatism.” But since Democrats were also menaces to conservatism, should Trump win the nomination, it was inevitable that they would fall behind him as the lesser evil.
Now the conservative establishment is objecting to Perdue’s primary challenge against Kemp. Perdue’s campaign is utterly devoid of policy content, and serves the sole function of advancing Trump’s goal of liquidating internal resistance and aligning the party behind his refusal to accept electoral defeat. Unlike Trump’s 2016 candidacy, Perdue’s has no confounding elements of populism or reality-show entertainment in the mixture. It is laboratory-pure authoritarianism.
But Perdue’s conservative critics register their objections at a far shallower level. The Wall Street Journal moans that Perdue’s campaign is “a good way to turn a major state over to the progressive left,” and “the GOP’s biggest obstacle will be party divisions.” National Review’s Jim Geraghty calls Kemp a “safe bet” to prevail in November as the nominee, and warns, “if the party doesn’t unify behind whoever wins the primary, Stacey Abrams is probably going to be the next governor of Georgia.” The Washington Examiner editorializes, “Perdue is a good man, and it is a shame that he is no longer in the Senate, but it is at least as much a shame to see him splitting the Republican Party in the closely contested gubernatorial race.”
None of these conservatives are drawing red lines, or even framing the case in any kind of moral terms. They are merely fretting that the primary will weaken the party’s hand against the greater enemy of Stacey Abrams.
Is that argument even correct? Possibly so: Maybe Perdue’s association with Trump would alienate enough moderate voters to supply Abrams her winning margin. Alternatively, it is possible that a Kemp nomination would be hindered by opposition from Trump, who might very well prefer that she win to the reelection of a Republican who refused to help him steal the election.
Trump and Perdue no doubt grasp the imbalance here. The pro-Kemp forces are warning of “division” in the event Perdue wins, but ultimately they are not themselves willing to split from their party. Both factions are threatening schism, but only the Trumpian threat has credibility.
This imbalance in willpower has characterized the factional fights within the party for more than half a century. I’ve recommended Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s history of the demise of the GOP’s moderate wing, many times, though perhaps not often enough. The conservatives cared more about control of the party (rule) than the risk of losing (ruin). The moderates may have wished to rule, but were largely unwilling to threaten party unity.
Trump’s long post-election purge is prevailing because of this same asymmetry of willpower. He is able to grasp that his remaining intraparty critics don’t actually care about democracy. They merely want to win. His strategy is to force them to choose, knowing full well what their answer will be in the end.