Republican Party going off the rails?

Former President Trump and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Getty Images - Greg Nash

Republicans are at a crossroads — and, to paraphrase Woody Allen, they’re going to take it.

Is this still a Donald Trump-dominated party or will they move away from his polarizing, exclusionary nationalism? The second impeachment trial and acquittal of Trump for inciting the deadly mob assault on the Capitol only intensified this schism.

The sense — hope — of more than a few Republicans that the divisive former president would fade from the political scene was clearly a pipedream — dispelled for good by Trump’s vitriolic broadside on Tuesday against Mitch McConnell and his vow to back primary challengers to any Republican official who doesn’t toe the Trump line.

Both sides in this internal civil war are threatening to break away if the other dominates. Trump has threatened to start a third party, and a group of never-Trumpers raised the same possibility. I doubt either will occur, but the threats underscore the tensions.

Republicans have cause for concern. Since Trump incited the Jan. 6 mob assault on the Capitol, the GOP’s favorability with the public has fallen; tens of thousands of Republicans around the country are dropping their affiliation with the party.

Trump’s standing has plummeted too. While officially acquitted in the Senate trial, a record numbers of senators voted to convict a president. If it had been a secret vote, former Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who served with most all the current senators, said he’s “absolutely convinced” that Trump would have been convicted.

More prominent Republicans are joining a handful of governors and Sen. Mitt Romney to deplore Trump. These include acts of conscience — like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse — and of calculation, like Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, who appears poised to run for president in 2024.

Yet the flak back home for those Republicans who voted against Trump on impeachment has been intense, even ugly. House members Tom Rice of South Carolina and Cheney have been censured by their state parties. So have Sens. Sasse and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Neither is up for reelection until 2026. There’s a movement in Pennsylvania to censure Sen. Pat Toomey, who has already announced he plans to retire.

In addition to the continuing passion Trump commands with his base, his supporters control much of the Republican grass roots, many spinning loony conspiracy theories.

It’s not just the old-line conservative areas. Take the once moderate Republican strongholds of Oregon and Minnesota. Neither has elected a Republican senator since 2002; Minnesota hasn’t elected a GOP governor since 2006, Oregon since 1982. Yet those state parties keep moving right.

The Oregon Republican committee rejected that the Capitol mob had anything to do with Trump; they said instead that it actually was the Democrats’ “goal of seizing total power in a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag.”

The party leaders really approved that.

In Minnesota, the Trump-supporting state chair embraced the bogus ‘steal the vote’ charge in that state, citing “extreme abnormalities” and “statistical variations.” The Biden-Harris team won the state by more than 233,000 votes or 7 percent.

The worst nightmare for Gopher State Republicans is if the My Pillow Guy, Mike Lindell, a conspiracy spouting Trump loyalist, runs for governor next year. The former president has encouraged him.

In the non-Trump ranks, the most interesting scenario was sketched by one of the party’s leading policy/political thinkers, Bill Kristol, who uses a stock market metaphor for the party: Trump fever with Republicans is a “bubble” and expectations of his clout in Republican primaries next year so high, it’s smart to sell short because that bubble may burst. It’s better for sane Republicans, he says, if Biden is a “reasonably successful President.” If he’s judged a failure, the Trumpites will claim vindication to return to power.

I’m a little skeptical this all will work put — Kristol may be as well — but there are few more plausible scenarios.

Trump, banned from Twitter, will be ensnared in multiple legal charges in different venues for his actions to overturn a legitimate election, in addition to the allegations about his past business and personal behavior.

House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) has ruled out censuring the former president, saying it’s too light a penalty. The call by some critics to invoke the 14th Amendment to ban him from running again would be a mistake. Trump shrewdly plays the victim card; suppose he was a leading candidate for the next election and was being denied, primarily by Democrats, a chance to run. I’m confident he won’t successfully run again; don’t make him a political martyr.

But he’s still positioned to be a trouble-maker, a rabble-rousing demagogue in a split that may be harder to reconcile than other divisions. The post-World War II globalists versus isolationists was a division eased by the consensus over the threat of the Soviet Union and the popularity of President Eisenhower. The bitter Barry Goldwater versus Nelson Rockefeller divide in the 1960s was submerged, for the sake of winning, to accept Richard Nixon in 1968. The supply side versus deficit hawks was a split papered over by Ronald Reagan and, for a time, George H.W. Bush.

The current split is more personal, petty and vitriolic. Trump doesn’t care about the Republican party or any politician, other than himself.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Ben Sasse Bill Cassidy Capitol breach Conspiracy theories Domestic reactions to the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol Donald Trump doug jones Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Nikki Haley Pat Toomey Republican Party Republican senators Right-wing populism in the United States Second impeachment of Donald Trump Tom Rice

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