The end of the GOP?

There’s a certain awful symmetry in politics. For the Republican Party, that symmetry appears to be violence in the Capitol — on one end of history, marking the party’s national ascendancy and on the other, signifying its present unraveling. 

On May 22, 1856, pro-slavery, Democratic Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate chamber. Pummeling Sumner with his cane, Brooks was livid that Sumner had decried the efforts of Brooks’s relative, South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler, to admit the Kansas territory into the union as a slave state.

In the wake of the caning, public opinion divided along sectional lines. While the House of Representatives eventually would censure him, Brooks was unrepentant and his fellow southerners believed he had done “exactly right,” as Stephen Puleo recounted in “The Caning: The Assault The Drove America to Civil War.” Horrified and dismayed, northerners thought Brooks a “criminal,” and characterized the brutal beating as one “against the right of free speech and the dignity of a free State.” 

As historian Lewis Gould explained, “the episode outraged moderate northern opinion as an example of southern aggression.” The extent of Sumner’s injuries made him a martyr to the anti-slavery cause, which also served to elevate the moral appeal of the Republican Party over its rival Whig Party successor in the North, the Know-Nothing Party. 

In the presidential election later that year, the Republican nominee, John Fremont, earned 60 fewer electoral votes than Democratic nominee James Buchanan (174-114), but 106 more electoral votes than the Know-Nothing Party nominee, former President Millard Fillmore. This partial victory solidified the GOP’s position as a national party in America. Beginning in 1860, Abraham Lincoln made it the dominant party at the presidential level for more than 50 years.   

On Jan. 6, 2021, the tables turned. Republicans not only lost the moral high-ground they once occupied, but the right-wing fringe element of their party sought to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes by ransacking the Capitol with the intent to harm members of Congress.

Less than one month on, what is clear is that the Capitol insurrection was only the visible part of the massive iceberg that is now ripping through the hull of the Republican Party. Below the water’s surface were the multitude of lies crafted by former President Trump and his advisers and perpetuated by some Republican elected officials in Congress and around the country.

Evidently concerned about the widening fractures in the GOP, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago last week in an attempt to convince the former president to stop ostracizing Republicans whom Trump believes are disloyal to him.

The problem for McCarthy, not to mention the GOP, is that Trump’s allies and supporters are already planning to target Republicans in primary elections who have acknowledged the truth — that the 2020 election was legitimate, the count was fair and Trump lost. And Republican state parties are censuring Republicans who either voted in favor of impeachment or disavowed the outlandish efforts to overturn the election.

On the other side of the ledger, anti-Trump Republicans continue to exit the GOP. Former elected officials and high-profile appointees have grown tired of the party being “the cult of Trump.” Long-serving activists have seen enough. Registered voters have dropped their party affiliation in large numbers over the past few weeks.

Those Republicans not yet abandoning their party’s sinking ship are trying to right past wrongs and tell the truth. Bailing water furiously, they are trying to take it back from the conspiracy theorists and radical activists by focusing on public policy and constructing their own life rafts.

While GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, like McCarthy, is stressing “unity” and has said that the Republican National Committee will remain neutral during the 2024 presidential primary season, it seems unlikely that the GOP will even make it that far. The Senate impeachment trial is next week. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the roles played by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in inciting the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. And the Capitol Police are investigating whether members of Congress gave “pre-riot building tours” on Jan. 5.

About the only thing Republicans can hope for to right their party vessel is for Trump to jump overboard. He’s got a leadership PAC with money. And it appears, thanks to James Davis, a Trump supporter from Florida, he also has a new yacht rigged especially for him — the MAGA Patriot Party.

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the author of “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership.” Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.

Tags Capitol attacks Donald Trump Electoral violence Far-right politics Josh Hawley Kevin McCarthy Presidency of Donald Trump Republican Party Ronna McDaniel Ted Cruz

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