President Trump has lost more support from the Republican Establishment over the past two days than he has cumulatively over the past four years. The dissent that once trickled out in blind quotes and quiet hand-wringing now pours forth in a torrent. Cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao have resigned, Steve Mnuchin and Mike Pompeo reportedly discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump, and even as docile a figure as Kevin McCarthy reportedly had a “screaming match” with the president over his refusal to condemn the insurrection. Reliable members of the Republican coalition, ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers to Southern Baptist Convention president Russell Moore have called for his resignation, and Rupert Murdoch–owned publications like the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal have turned on Trump, with the latter also calling for his resignation. The legion of conservative pundits who devoted themselves to anti-anti-Trumpism, like Matthew Continetti and Kyle Smith, to cite just a couple, are no longer couching their disapproval in the conceit that Joe Biden is somehow worse.
This is a big, important change. The conservative movement, just over the span of a few days, has reversed its posture toward a Republican president. This reversal has enormous implications, from reducing (though not, of course, eliminating) the chance that Trump will capture the party’s 2024 nomination to altering the 45th president’s place in American historical memory.
From the standpoint of a Trump critic, it may seem baffling that so many people who wanted Trump to have a second term and used whatever power they had to advance that end have turned on him so rapidly. Yes, unleashing that insurrectionary mob was an outrage — but why did this outrage sever their support after they had met so many previous outrages with silence?
The answer combines elements of conviction and calculation. One fact about conservatives that liberals may not fully appreciate is their self-image as upholders of law and order. Most conservatives truly consider themselves more peaceful and orderly. “Direct action” is not a phrase I’ve ever heard a conservative utter. And while this self-image glosses over both a long history of non-state violence on the right and the evils of state-sponsored violence, you can’t understand the right without grasping the power of this ideal.
Because conservatives are so invested in their idealized self-image as law abiding and orderly, the siege on the Capitol, the spectacle of costumed ruffians using black-bloc tactics, all in their name, came as a greater shock to the right than the left. It surely compounded the outrage that the howling mobs were targeting not only Democrats but Republicans, who were barricading themselves inside just as fearfully as the Democrats.
There is an old saying that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. In this case Republicans found themselves hiding from a mob whose goals quite literally included executing Mike Pence through this very method. To at least some extent, the howls of outrage are genuine because the revolution these people have been stoking has finally come home.
There is also a healthy dose of political self-interest at work. Whereas conservatives once had an incentive to suppress any feelings of disgust for Trump’s conduct, they now have an incentive to play them up. What used to be a bargain between Trump and the GOP — in which they would overlook his corruption and abuses of power, and he would deliver judicial nominations and policy wins — has devolved into a series of one-sided demands. Trump is no longer giving his party anything and is instead bullying them to cooperate with a series of increasingly absurd conspiracy theories and pseudo-constitutional remedies.
It turns out to be an important coincidence of timing that Trump instigated a riot the day after Republicans lost a special election in Georgia. The Georgia races created a test case for Trump’s political effect on a post-Trump world. The hypothesis that he would motivate his supporters to keep turning out for other Republican candidates, who wouldn’t be laden with his baggage — a scenario Republicans had been anticipating — did not come to fruition. Instead, the opposite took place. Trump’s mania turned off moderates and inspired Democrats without inspiring the Trump cult to turn out en masse.
Now he looms as an ongoing headache, carping unhelpfully from the sidelines and making it hard for Republicans to win back some of the college-educated voters who swung to Biden without providing an equivalent benefit by inspiring his voters to turn out. Republicans were already stewing from the Georgia election results when the riot added a moral dimension to their political concern.
The rites of excommunication now being applied to Trump have a recent historic parallel: the conservative movement’s decision to cast out George W. Bush during his second term. Throughout his first five years, Bush enjoyed even stronger support on the right than Trump has received. He was the subject of respect and even worship as a true and worthy heir to Ronald Reagan. Conservative magazines sold kitschy coins and busts celebrating Bush’s leadership.
But when a cascading series of political failures, managerial catastrophes, and corruption scandals broke out, conservative elites declared that Bush had been a heretic all along. The failures that befell him did not implicate conservatism, they insisted, because Bush had actually been a moderate. Of course, the ideological heterodoxies hardly troubled conservatives during his first term. Once he won his second election, though, he was no longer of much use to them. Better to throw the carcass aside than let its stench cover them as well.
Republicans have been intensely aware that their tolerance for Trump’s misdeeds will be thrown back in their faces the next time a Democrat holds office. Denouncing Trump, even after spending his entire term supporting him, will give them some cover to attack Biden without having to answer for Trump’s greater crimes.
Will it be hypocritical? Of course. But it was hypocritical for Republicans to denounce Obama’s supposed fiscal irresponsibility and executive overreach after Bush had vastly exceeded him on both counts. Washing their hands of Trump at the last minute will free up Republicans to move into opposition. Now they have seen the error of their ways, and they will repent by holding the president to a high moral standard from now on (or until the president is a Republican once again).
Just a few weeks ago, Trump’s control of the party was so unquestioned that several candidates who are presumed to be exploring campaigns for 2024 endorsed him preemptively. Now they are openly questioning his fitness to hold office. If Trump does run for the nomination, he will again have to fight his way to it.
Perhaps more significant, Republicans are finally conceding the truths that Trump’s critics have seen all along: He is a demagogue, an authoritarian, and a menace to the Republic. They have whitewashed those traits, but now they are the subjects of bipartisan consensus.
Joe McCarthy was a grassroots hero to the right, and conservatives overlooked his flaws because they appreciated his value in whipping up their base and discrediting the New Deal. But eventually, McCarthy went too far and turned his paranoia against the Eisenhower administration. At that point, Republicans began to profess in public what they had whispered privately: He was a liar and a menace. And that is how the history books record McCarthy now — not as the polarizing icon of the right he had been at his peak but as the discredited outcast he became at the very end, after his use to the party had expired.
History will record Trump in the same way: as a criminal, a clown, a disgrace to the office, and a black mark on our history. Many of his allies will spend the rest of their lives explaining that they were against him all along. It is cynical. But it is also, in the ungainly way these things often go, progress.