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The GOP is in a fix: Gordian knot or existential crisis?

The GOP is in a fix: Gordian knot or existential crisis?
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Last Wednesday the U.S. House impeached President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE for the second time. Although only ten House Republicans joined Democrats in this ultimate political and constitutional act of repudiation, it marked the most bipartisan impeachment in our nation’s history. Many other Republicans criticized Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, carefully toeing the line between patriotic outrage and party unity.

But with a Jan. 11 poll showing 71 percent of Republicans continue to support Trump, most members of the GOP have no choice but to defend him.

Rep. Jason CrowJason CrowManagers seek to make GOP think twice about Trump acquittal The GOP is in a fix: Gordian knot or existential crisis? Thousands of troops dig in for inauguration MORE (D-Col.) summed up the stakes: “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues … A couple of them broke down in tears … saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment." Politico reporter Tim Alberta put things in even starker terms, saying several Republican members wanted to impeach the president, but “fear casting a vote could get them or their families murdered.”

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Meanwhile, a Jan. 4 poll shows 71 percent of Trump supporters — comprised largely of conservatives — believe we “may likely be headed to a civil war or other significant upheaval.” The FBI is warning more armed protests might be on the horizon at all 50 state Capitol buildings.

In the midst of this clear-and-present danger, Republican officials are finally realizing they must peel Trump away from their identities, while simultaneously keeping Trump supporters in their camp. Peel too slowly, and they’ll continue to co-own Trump’s troubling words and actions. Peel too quickly, and they might face the wrath of the tens of millions of Americans who continue to hang on Trump’s every word, and will continue to even after he leaves office. (He might not have Twitter or Parler, but there’s no doubt he’ll find ways to reach them.)

Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsSenate braces for 'God-awful,' 'stupid' session ahead of COVID-19 relief vote Indigenous groups post billboards urging senators to confirm Deb Haaland Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears MORE’ (R-S.D.) recent comments offer clues on how he and his colleagues might navigate this rough terrain: “When the story of this last 90 days is told, they will clearly lay out that the president of the United States misled very, very good, honest, patriotic Americans by telling them time and again that the election was stolen.”

Describing insurrectionists as “good,” “honest,” and “patriotic” might seem like a desperate ploy, and arguably it’s a dangerous one for our nation — but such is the desperation within the GOP to hold together its increasingly fragile and volatile coalition.

And this is why Rounds’ statement is so telling. His party cannot afford to put daylight between themselves and the people who elected them. There are too many angry Republicans who, just as they did with President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy is Joe Biden dodging the public and the press? Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Pentagon issues report revealing ex-White House doctor 'belittled' subordinates, violated alcohol policies MOREdon’t view Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE as legitimate. They are demanding that their elected officials listen to them, or else face the consequences. In this past November’s House races, Republicans won 11 seats by less than 3 percent and lost 11 seats by less than 3 percent. Two years earlier, 25 House races were decided by less than 3 percent. Even a slight depression in conservative voting in 2022 could help produce a wave Democratic election. With four GOP Senate seats in play (compared to 2-3 Democratic seats) — not to mention U.S. House control — Republicans must cling to their base.

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The Republican Party's best hope is to find a 2024 presidential candidate whom Trump supporters will fall behind lock-step. At the same time, they have to gradually re-program their base to think of all things Trump in the past tense.

The near-term future of the Republican Party hinges, in large part, on how effectively they can toe this line.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.