For a few days, the Republican party appeared to be undergoing a crisis of confidence, if not an outright crack-up. First, Donald Trump lost an election, then tried to negate the outcome throughout a series of threats and increasingly absurd lawsuits, then his party lost control of the Senate in a previously red state, and then Trump whipped up an insurrectionary mob that sacked the capitol. Trump failed to check in on Pence even as his vice-president was hiding from a mob out to literally execute him, placing an understandable strain on their once-solid relationship.
Perhaps, finally, things had gone so far that the party would undertake the soul-searching it had avoided for four years. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell let it be known he wished to be rid of Trump. The party “likely will face a raging internal war over policies and political leaders,” asserts longtime Washington hand Jim VandeHei. “Do not underestimate how divided and confused their party is right now,” posits David Brooks, “Do not underestimate how much Republicans trust Biden personally.”
But instead of a Glasnost for the Republican party, the days after January 6 seem instead to be a Prague Spring — a brief flowering of dissent and questioning of dogma quickly suppressed by a remorseless crackdown.
The heady predictions that the party would break free of the Trumpist grip already seem fanciful. If anybody is suffering repercussions for their response to Trump’s autogolpe, it is the Republicans who criticized it. Conservative Republicans are threatening to strip Liz Cheney of her leadership post after she voted to impeach Trump. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, an adept reader of the prevailing winds within his party, offered a non-defense of his third in command: “I support her, but I have concerns.” Adam Kinzinger, another pro-impeachment Republican, is facing censure. The Michigan Republican member of the state board of canvassers, who broke with his party to certify the state’s election results, is losing his job as a result of his refusal to go along with Trump’s lie. Fox News is firing journalists associated with its election call that Biden won Arizona.
The clearest sign of the counter-revolutionary momentum is the flagging prospects for impeaching Trump. Senate Republicans are coalescing around a technical claim that Trump cannot be impeached because he has already left office, an argument at odds with the conclusion of most scholars, but which allows them to avoid casting firm judgment on Trump’s incitement. McCarthy, who last week said Trump “bears responsibility” for the mob attack, now says, ““I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally.”
The end of the Trump era has left the party divided, broadly speaking, into three wings. On the left is a small wing of Never Trumpers who opposed Trump, believing him to be unfit for office and a threat to the republic. They are represented politically by figures like Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney, and John Kasich — and intellectually by the Bulwark and a variety of columnists at mainstream outlets. Many Never Trumpers connected their party’s embrace of Trump with a more longstanding anti-democratic turn. They represent the pro-democracy wing of the Republican Party.
On the right flank is a violent authoritarian wing of roughly equal size. These conservatives fervently support Trump, and either endorsed his insurrection, or else justified it as a false-flag operation. The violent authoritarians supported keeping Trump in office by any means necessary, and oppose any measures to hold him accountable or to punish any of his radical supporters. This wing is represented by members of Congress like QAnon supporters Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and in the media by various commentators on the Fox News evening lineup, OAN, and Newsmax.
In the middle is what you might call “soft authoritarians.” This faction’s political representation is figures like McConnell and Pence, and its views are expressed by organs like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and National Review. They have supported most of Trump’s abuses of power, firmly opposing impeachment, Congressional oversight, efforts to obtain Trump’s tax returns, or any other accountability mechanism. The soft authoritarians strongly believe in the principle of minority rule, as long as it is enforced through peaceful and legal channels like gerrymandering and vote suppression.
This is the faction that has determined the party’s response to Trump. The soft authoritarians were appalled at Trump’s use of a barbarous mob to beat up police officers and smash down the Capitol’s doors and windows. They sicken at the prospect Trump might capture the party’s nomination again in 2024, which is why they remain open to convicting Trump and barring him from holding federal office again.
But the soft authoritarians are party men, not principled democrats. And they have surely noticed that Trump’s hold over their voters remains strong. A terrifying seventy percent of Republican voters agree with Trump’s lie that he received more votes than Biden. Trump’s loyalists are threatening revenge if he is convicted. (Trump adviser Jason Miller tells Ryan Lizza, “Republican senators need to think long and hard about what an impeachment vote would do to the party.” Reports that Trump is contemplating starting his own party, which would guarantee Democrats victory in 2024, are probably a bluff. But the chance that a figure as unpredictable as Trump just might follow through makes it an effective bluff.
The path of least resistance for the soft authoritarianism will be to oppose Trump’s conviction on technical grounds, and then hope he fades away quietly. As that happens, the centrifugal pressure Trump exerted on their coalition with his deranged antics will ease, to be replaced by the centripetal pressure of a Biden administration enacting Democratic priorities.
You can already see the internal Republican tension abating as they pull together in opposition. Did Trump make mistakes? Perhaps so, they will concede, but they are behind us, and now they face new dangers and outrages from Biden. No rethinking of the Republican platform — indeed, no thinking of any kind — will be needed. Republicans can simply repurpose Trump’s attacks on Biden as a corrupt, doddering crypto-socialist tool of AOC. The Republican civil war is over before it even began.