The Memo: GOP and nation grapple with what comes next
“This is the beginning of the divorce,” former GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo told The Hill on Friday as aftershocks from insurrectionary violence two days before reverberated across the nation.
Curbelo, who represented Florida’s 26th District from 2015 to 2019, was predicting a final and permanent split between President Trump and the Republican Party.
His assessment took another step toward reality a few hours later when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) became the first GOP senator to call for Trump’s resignation, even though there were then only 13 days left in his White House tenure.
“I want him out. He has caused enough damage,” Murkowski told the Anchorage Daily News.
Murkowski also mused publicly on her future within the GOP.
“If the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me,” she said.
On Sunday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) echoed Murkowski’s call, telling CNN that Trump’s resignation would be “the best path forward.”
The Republican Party and the nation at large are grappling with related issues.
The GOP is mulling what it should look like and stand for in a post-Trump era. For the nation, there are questions about whether the boil of extreme militancy has been lanced or whether last week’s violence was an ominous harbinger.
“At the level of American party politics, I think this is a turning point, a watershed — and the beginning of the end of Donald Trump as a major figure inside the political system,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who has written extensively about threats to democracy.
Yet Diamond also cautioned that, when it comes to the danger from far-right extremists willing to engage in violence, “the boil hasn’t even begun to be lanced, and the poison is still growing.”
The riot that convulsed Capitol Hill on Wednesday, perpetrated by a mob that had been riled up by the president, reverberated around the world. Two people, a rioter and a police officer, died violently, and three other people died of other causes not directly related to the mayhem.
The revulsion that followed was broad. Some erstwhile Trump allies abandoned him. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao both resigned, as did Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff.
Reliable Trump allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also broke away, and those who had backed the effort to overturn the 2020 election result, notably Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), came under criticism.
On Friday evening, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence.”
The events of Wednesday will taint Trump’s reputation for the rest of his days. But 74 million people voted for him in November. His support has weathered numerous furors, from Charlottesville to impeachment, before now. On Saturday and Sunday, numerous congressional Republicans expressed opposition to the idea of impeaching him.
“The party is in disarray,” said Judd Gregg, a Republican who served stints as New Hampshire’s governor and as a U.S. senator. “The president has created a cult around himself, and it is a fairly significant percentage of the population, millions of people, who remain committed to him and believe his fantasies.”
Gregg said there was no real question that Trump had been politically damaged. But the damage would likely amount to an erosion of his support rather than an elimination of it, he said.
“It reduces his constituency dramatically but I think they are still there and they are still going to be active.”
Referring to the GOP senators who backed Trump’s ill-founded objections to the election’s outcome, Gregg said, “They have disgraced themselves — but some of them are obviously going to run for president” in 2024.
A former Republican congressman said that Trump’s “legacy is now forever damaged.” The former member added that, within the GOP, “the fight is about to begin. The great reckoning that many of us had been hoping for has now arrived. It’s sad that it has happened under these circumstances.”
“I do think there is the possibility that Trumpism as a political force is largely a spent force,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University. “That doesn’t mean that in the broader social arena it is a spent force. But this rabid minority may not be able to elect many public officials.”
Still, even Lichtman acknowledged that the support that Trump received at the polls just two months ago will not simply evaporate.
A new PBS-Marist poll released on Friday found Republican voters split evenly on whether the events that occurred at the Capitol amounted to people participating in “legitimate protest” or “acting unlawfully.”
Trump’s support has deep roots too. Even some on the left argue that it is important not to focus solely on him but on the conditions that facilitated his rise in the first place.
“This is not Trump out there by himself with a few little cronies who constitute a lunatic fringe. No, no no!” said Cornel West, the prominent academic who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his 2020 presidential campaign.
West argued that the media tended to see Trump too simplistically, glossing over — as he sees it — the failure of centrist Democrats to address the problems that ail many poorer Americans and provided the president with fertile political soil.
“The media wants to use a Manichean lens — good on one side, evil on the other,” West said. “The catastrophes of the American empire have to do with greed, especially at the top, shattering families; people yearning for some sense of community that they can’t find; and the legacies of white supremacy that people often cling to when they feel like they’re going under.”
West, as harsh a Trump critic as they come, laughed wryly when asked if he had felt any surprise about the insurrectionist violence on Jan. 6.
“I am never surprised by evil or paralyzed by despair,” he said. “Violence is as American as apple pie, just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is as American as apple pie — one is the worst and one is the best.”
That may be true when it comes to the broad sweep of history.
But for now, at least among more centrist Republicans such as Curbelo, there is a belief that the angry populist tide is at least beginning to recede.
“His movement’s support will be ultimately reduced to a small but not insignificant — and very passionate — base,” he said. “That base is poised to continue being relevant in the Republican Party. However, it is unlikely that base will continue to be the dominant current.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage