The GOP: Not a Civil War, Not a Purge
The GOP is actually pretty healthy at the moment, despite some public rhetoric to the contrary.
James Joyner noted a story earlier in the week about a group of Republicans threatening to leave the party. He correctly titled the piece, “Handful of Nobodies Threatens to Form New Party.” Nonetheless, Jennifer Rubin’s column on this same story was entitled “The stampede away from the GOP begins.” To which I have to say: no, no it doesn’t. Stephen Colbert noted the story this week as well, making it sound a lot more significant than it is. Colbert is making jokes, but Rubin should know better (although, in fairness, the column does not match the headline in the intensity of its description of potential exits).
We have been seeing speculation of a break within the GOP for a long time now. Would John McCain quit the party? Would Jeff Flake? How about Ben Sasse? Surely Mitt Romney! Why, oh why, are people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski staying in the party? What about the Republicans who voted for impeachment? Liz Cheney is no longer a Republican right? ‘
But, of course, no one except Justin Amash quit the party while in office, and he did so knowing that he wasn’t going to run for re-election. So, while I see references to civil wars, self-destruction, self-immolation, and turmoil within the GOP, I just don’t see anything other than some combination of wishful thinking and sensationalism in those claims.
This is not new. For some time now (really, all the way back in 2016) there have been predictions that the Republican Party was in trouble. For example, back in May of that year, Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted:
I think a lot of people thought he was making a broader philosophical point about the party. But, ultimately he thought that Trump’s nomination would lead to Republican losses at the ballot box. And while, in fact, Trump won fewer votes that Hillary Clinton, the Electoral College awarded him the presidency. And, I would note, the Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress.
So, not surprisingly, just this week Graham said the following (echoing something he has said numerous times of late):
“Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“I’ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump,” Graham continued. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
Trump ended up a winner in 2016 as did the GOP. And that is what changed the tune of many.
Again: what looked to be a big loss in May of 2016 (an outcome I thought was likely) led to two years of unified government. Further, that win led to deregulation, a significant tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, a panoply of judges, and a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court of the United States. Despite all of Trump’s baggage, that list makes it far from irrational for a lot of GOP politicians and voters to have seen his presidency as a success. (And his appeals to white nationalism was also a bonus from the POV of many, and something to rationalize away for others).
To put all of that another way, from a purely empirical point of view, a lot of the behavior we are seeing from GOP voters and politicians makes sense (if one’s goal is to understand outcomes and try and understand current behavior).
What matters is winning and Trump won in 2016 and many congressional Republicans see him as part of a win in 2022, especially in the primaries. Note, too, that the Big Lie rhetoric is a potential way to motivate Republican turn-out. This matters because one of the Democrats’ main tools of late has been turnout.
I recognize that Trump lost in 2020, and that the GOP lost control of the Congress. But it matters that the GOP did better than expected both for the presidency and in the House. Plus their losses in the Senate were razor-thin. They think that minor shifts will lead them back to power (and hence attempts at legal voter suppression). They also know that their wins at the state level put them at an advantage in redistricting the House, which will impact the 2022 elections.
Fundamentally, it is rational for Republicans to see their best bet as doubling down on their advantages rather than trying to broaden their appeal.
The most important motivator for a member of congress is neither policy success nor ideology. It is winning re-election.
All of this boils down to what politicians want and how the system is constructed to help them get what they want.
To go all POL 101 on everyone, politicians want power. They may want that power to further a policy goal. They may want it because they like the prestige and privilege of office. They may have totally corrupt intentions. Whether they want to do good, bad, or a mix, they all want power. In a representative democracy power is gained via the ballot box, so the type of electoral rules a country has dictates what power-seeking politicians have to do to get that power.
This, of course, why I carry on so much about electoral rules and structural conditions. The pathways to power that a given system creates help to determine the behavior of power-seeking actors.
Our system focuses most competition on the primaries, not the general election. This means pleasing a small segment of the voters. Pleasing large numbers of voters becomes irrelevant as the partisan make-up of the district will dictate who wins. I would hasten to add there is nothing in our system that makes politicians have any reason to truly represent their whole state or district. They need only really represent the voters who can stop them from returning to office, which means, more often than not, the primary electorate.
If I am a Republican member of Congress who desperately wants to be re-elected, I know I have to pass through the gauntlet of the primary. I know that at the moment the odds are that I need to be able to placate the voters who see Trump as the leader of the party (after all, shouldn’t the party’s nominee follow the leader?). And again, since Trump and his allies have convinced a lot of rank-and-file Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen, it is a way to try and motivate more voter turnout next year.
A presidential system encourages personalized politics (as does a system or primaries to nominate). Voters and office-holders identify a person (the party leader) with the party. In the US the party leader is the president (or the nominee of the losing party). Trump, even as a loser, is the most recent GOP winner and he has eligibility left, so to speak. As long as he is seen to be the likely nominee or likely kingmaker for the nomination for 2024, he will hold sway in the party.
Moreover, GOP voters see him as the party’s leader, especially going into mid-terms, which are just next year. We are less than a year away from primary elections in many states. (I plan to return to the significance of two-year terms in another post).
And surely we understand that while a lot what I have described suggests that people are fairly simplistic about politics, I would note that yes, people are fairly simplistic about politics. But I would also reiterate that a lot of GOP voters who actually do care about policy outcomes got a lot of what they wanted from Trump and the Trump-era GOP. Those outcomes are strong incentives to rationalize away a lot of the trumpiness.
Having said all of that, let’s consider:
- The GOP has a really good chance of winning back control of the House in 2022.
- The GOP has a really good chance of winning back control of the Senate in 2022.
- The GOP knows that they don’t have to win the most votes in 2024 to win back the presidency, but instead need to flip a relatively small number of votes in a handful of states.
Where in any of that is the stuff of civil wars and party self-destruction?
I take the point that adhering to untruth can be corrosive (although the student of politics in me would note that fierce allegiance to the truth is not a guaranteed winner), and so maybe this behavior will have serious long-term consequences for the GOP.
But politicians have notoriously short time horizons. Kevin McCarthy is worried about 2022. Which, as I noted, is next year. 2024 is on the radar, but only somewhat (and mainly as it pertains to 2022). So the long-term is not going to motivate any of them to behave better.
I would certainly recommend that no one think that the GOP is about to collapse. It is far more likely to be back in power than it is to be falling apart. The objections of party has-beens, NeverTrumpers, and writers at the Bulwark are not going to stop this fact.
Postscript: none of this is a defense of the GOP nor of its voters. This is about a clear-eyed assessment of where we are and why (while recognizing that I have hardly covered every single point that could be made on this topic).
“I would certainly recommend that no one thing that the GOP is about to collapse.”
Could you clarify? This is a very interesting piece.
@CSK: Should have been “think.”
If Trump were to die sometime soon, what would happen?
@CSK: A scramble would start in regards to 2024 as people like Pompeo and DeSantis tried to jockey for 2024 position.
A lot of GOP types would be less worried about being primaried.
But I also think that the Big Lie stuff is out there enough that it would still be seen as a useful tool for 2022.
There would be a lot of jockeying in the short term to control and claim Trump’s legacy.
While I’ll agree with you that R’s are not in a civil war, they continue to purge from office, their ‘moderates’ i.e. the RINOs as they have done for 25 years. Over the years the definition of RINO has changed and now is any R who doesn’t pledge fealty to TFG. While currently in office R’s have not left the party, a number of their campaign and legislative staffers have left the party or have become persona non grata because they are anti-trumpers, but have not declared that they are no longer Rs.
Graham’s later quote frames Cheney as making a political calculation, while her own remarks seemed to avoid that. And yet, I do wonder if she has made the calculation that the party is better off without Trump, that Trump and Trumpism will lose for them.
Also, I think she calculates that she will be able to win her own primary, which I think is very likely correct.
And indeed, it has always seemed as though Trumpism was a loser, and yet here we are…
Still, this style takes enormous energy to maintain, since it demands not only maintenance of the Big Lie, but a new weekly outrage. Any one of those outrage risks pushing a few of the core believers away, as they have to keep searching for new material.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Yes; that’s pretty much what I think would happen. I would only add that among the hardcore Trumpkins, certainly, there would be grave suspicion that he was murdered by the deep state, even if it were conclusively proven that he expired of natural causes. And if he were to die in an accident of some sort (even a natural disaster), the belief that he was intentionally slain would increase tenfold.
@Sleeping Dog: There has been ideological sorting, to be sure. A lot of it is in response to the ongoing polarization of our politics.
There are far fewer conservative Dems. Would you characterize that as a purge?
(I would argue in both cases it is more about evolution than an active purge).
Part of wants to simply say: so what? (But I know that sounds unhelpful and maybe a bit aggressive). A less aggressive response would be: how does that affect the party’s electoral chances?
They can find new staffers.
@Jay L Gischer: I operate under the assumption that Cheney thinks she can weather all of this and stay within the GOP.
I think the vast majority of GOPers in Congress think they have to toe the line to win their primaries and therefore stay in the party.
Liz Cheney voted with Trump 92.9% of the time; Elise Stefanik 77.7% of the time.
Yet Stefanik is the true loyalist.
“Conservative” means “I love Trump.” Nothing else.
But conversely, the Dems only need to keep a relatively small number of votes in a handful of states to block them. Which cuts against Dr. Joyner’s “handful of nobodies” argument. If 5% of the GOP votes Democratic or even just stays home in 2022, that will cost the GOP the election even if that 5% is just “nobodies”.
I’d just point to the Senate runoffs in Georgia: despite a host of structural advantages, the GOP lost control of the senate because they turned off a bunch of their own voters:
Turnout dip among Georgia Republicans flipped U.S. Senate
Very interesting post. Thank you. I understand your points and I’m in agreement. But…
… short sightedness is inherently flawed in most arenas and it will be so in politics for the Republicans. It’s only a matter of time. “Adhering to untruths is not only corrosive, but as @Jay L Gischer notes, it is also much more work. The ‘shuck & jive’ must be maintained at all times or the illusion will be lost, while one has to constantly find new sources of red meat for the base. Motivations being what they are, I don’t expect the GOP to behave better, but I’m actually encouraged that they are doubling down on the lies, because I believe that will likely serve to accelerate the end game.
Now, I may not like the end game, because the great American experiment in democracy could very well fail as authoritarianism triumphs. But, a strategy predicated on perpetuating The Big Lie is unsustainable over time. The question becomes then, how does the country weather the damage to be done until the collapse.
It’s a problem for the party of minority rule keeps whittling down the size of their minority.
If Reagan were not enshrined, he’d qualify as RINO today. Remember that AMNESTY bill he signed?
There is no way the nobodies cited in that article have the ability to draw 5% of the vote.
The illusion is greatly aided by an audience willing to rationalize.
And as best as I can tell, the red meat machine has been operational without fail since at least the early 90s (and likely before that).
@Steven L. Taylor:
As the saying in retail goes: for every customer complaint you get, there are five more customers who just stopped buying from you without saying anything.
They don’t have to “draw” anyone to be a sign of a much bigger problem for the GOP.
I believe you’re right that the GOP is not in a civil war or a purge. But it is nice to see the supposedly liberal MSM distracted from their usual string of Dems-in-disarray stories.
@Steven L. Taylor: I’m as dumbfounded as anyone regarding the resiliency of the BS Machine. There’s profit and power in it, so maybe I’m the one who is deluded. But, I’ll continue to hold faith that ‘the truth will out’ as elsewhere despair lies.
Cheney supported Trump for re-election, while he was undermining the election.
Maybe she thought it wouldn’t matter. That can be a reasonable moral compromise, rather than just odd opportunism while trying to guess the direction of the country, as it looks now.
But, I would respect her more if she decided to run in 2024 as an independent spoiler if the party nominates someone who promotes the lie.
I’m hard pressed to see how what’s going on with the structural anomalies that permit the GOP to win in the Electoral College/gerrymandered Congressional election system counts as “growth.” It might be true that without Trump the GOP as it is currently constituted would “die,” but even that is a stretch. I think that it would be beneficial overall for conservatism/the GOP to jettison the Southern Strategy/racist tendencies that go back to before Buckley in the US (and probably before the Raj in the UK), but that’s not gonna happen (leopards changing spots, and all that).
To quote Catch-22
@Stormy Dragon: In theory, yes.
Although upon further reflection, I need to add: most districts have more than a 5% spread (among other ways that 5% might not be as much as you would think).
I don’t expect we’ll be saved by some GOP collapse. It will come down first to the economy. If the economy is strong we’ll likely hold Congress. And second: lawsuits, investigations and prosecutions. Third, how effective will we be at voter registration and turn-out.
There’s a factor I don’t know how to assess: if Republican voters have been convinced that elections are rigged, how many will fail to vote?
But that’s never the way Dems react to narrow losses. Moreover, the GOP has been doubling down for ages now, even after losses that weren’t so narrow. They doubled down after their big loss in 2008. They doubled down after 2012, which wasn’t quite as big a loss but where a lot of them were completely gobsmacked by Obama’s victory and where they’d entered the cycle expecting to win control of Senate but ended up actually losing seats. They double down because that’s all they know how to do, or perhaps all they ever want to do. This tendency possibly goes all the way back to Goldwater. When the Dems lost in historic landslides in the ’70s and ’80s, their reaction was to move toward the center. When the GOP had the same thing happen to them in ’64, it was the beginning of the party’s rightward lurch. Hell, even if Trump had suffered the expected loss in 2016, I bet the party would still have ended up significantly embracing elements of Trumpism (if not Trump himself).
The GOP isn’t reacting rationally to electoral realities, they’re employing the same playbook no matter what the situation, they just happen to live within a system that doesn’t consistently punish that behavior.
Unfortunately, this makes me think of this quote from JS Mill: “Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error…” (but he does go on to say truth persists–but along the way those who adhere to the truth as not protected from “the dungeon or the stake” by the truth itself.
The GOP is at some point going to either reinvent itself or collapse: every day that passes they have fewer people and the other side has more. Structural issues may allow them to delay the tipping point, but it’s coming and the longer they hold it off, the more dramatic it will be when it finally happens.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Sorting leads to purge or purge leads to sorting, chicken or the egg.
They failed to vote in Georgia, because L. Lin Wood and Sidney Powell told them not to do so.
This is a large part of my point, although I think we probably don’t mean it 100% the same way.
The system favors the GOP and therefore they are able to persist without as much adaptation as the Dems. And that is why talk of them going away, imploding, or whatever is inaccurate–that is my most basic thesis in this post.
Also: when was the last landslide loss for the GOP? FDR? They did adapt by nominating Ike. They lost pretty badly in 2008, but not 1972 or 1984 bad–not even close.
But it is harder to find an analog for 72 or 84 for Reps in recent times, especially not in the primary era (post-1972). It makes your comparison more problematic. The two parties have not faced the same conditions, and therefore they do behave differently in some ways.
@Steven L. Taylor: That’s a good quote, thanks for sharing it.
The truth needs its defenders. The whole Big Lie thing requires no dissent, or it falls apart, and so tyrannical regimes always attempt to squash dissent, particularly from whatever Big Lie they are propagating. In Cheney we have some dissent. (Our dissent doesn’t matter we are the Other).
Even one voice of dissent, if persistent, can undermine the Lie. People can turn away from the Big Lie and from Trump while retaining their Republican identity – this is what Cheney can show them. Because she voted with Trump so much, she is a better spokesperson for this than just about anyone else – better than Lindsay Graham, who is often viewed as “suspicious”.
But yeah, the truth doesn’t protect you. You have to do that yourself. That’s a hard lesson.
@Sleeping Dog: Except, a) I still don’t see all that much of a purge, and b) the sorting point is quite clear, so I don’t see a chicken and egg scenario at all.
You know how it’s hard to draw generalizations and patterns from congressional and general elections? Evidently it’s largely because they happen years apart under different conditions. There are some patterns and correlations, but not many and these are not very reliable as far as predictions go.
What if elections are so infrequent and so variable in condition that they simply are, each one, more an anecdote than actual data? If we try to draw inferences and general principles from anecdotal “data,” we won’t accomplish much.
If so, then 2016 happened because the conditions were right (or, rather, very wrong) for that outcome, and the GOP is, like so many before them, preparing to fight the last war.
@Steven L. Taylor: “…they are anti-trumpers, but have not declared that they are no longer Rs.” The fact that they’ve not quit the party itself is the telling point to me. They may not like the person, but they are at best ambivalent about opposing the agenda. Certainly not opposed enough to… say… vote against it or anything radical like that.
Here’s a question: who has been purged from the party?
@Steven L. Taylor:
You forgot about 1964? I mentioned it in my post. It’s generally accepted that Goldwater was the beginning of the GOP’s transformation from a centrist to a right-wing party.
@CSK: Trump will eventually be gone and the meaning of conservative will shift back to “government by your betters”–namely, us.
If the American populace is stupid enough to re-elect Trump again, we will be destroyed, and we will deserve it.
There’s a reason why I’ve picked out a few more languages to learn.
“Nonetheless, Jennifer Rubin’s column on this same story was entitled “The stampede away from the GOP begins.” To which I have to say: no, no it isn’t. ”
Shouldn’t that be “no, it doesn’t”?
Or maybe I’ve been teaching writing too long…
@Gustopher: Jax can maybe help us with this, but if Wyoming has a “sore loser” law, the only way Cheney can run as an independent is by foregoing running in the primary as a Republican in the first place. A marginal bet at best. (Not that I think she’s one to shy away from f88king over an enemy, or anything.)
@Steven L. Taylor: True, but if one has no beliefs that are worth dying for they probably have none that are worth living for either. 🙁
@wr: You are 100% correct. I was fixated on “stampede.”
@just nutha: Having beliefs is not the same thing as having the truth, I would note.
@wr: No, you’re right. “To begin” passes the “do test.”
@Kylopod: I did forget about 1964.
But what Rep was going to win in 1964 against the former Veep of the slain JFK?
By the same token, Nixon was not a Goldwaterite, and was actually pretty liberal on domestic policy.
What if a Republican candidate ran in the 24 primaries against trump, attacking the Turd d’Orange the same way he attacks others?
I think the loon with no committee assignments should be capable of doing that.
The GOP has a really good chance of winning back control of the House in 2022.
The GOP has a really good chance of winning back control of the Senate in 2022.
The GOP knows that they don’t have to win the most votes in 2024 to win back the presidency, but instead need to flip a relatively small number of votes in a handful of states.
And if those things happen, particularly #3, it’s game over for all of us. These people are lunatics, and they’ll never again concede power. If Americans elect a Republican in 2024, it will be the last “free” election this country ever holds.
Even them taking back Congress in 2022 will do significant and irreversible damage.
We didn’t get a commutation in November, just a stay of execution.
Sadly, I can’t help but feel that the best hope for the future is that Trump’s health fails completely. IE dies. I *hate* saying that about anyone (with the exception of the Hitler’s and Stalin’s of history, and no, Trump is not at that level even after Covid). But I don’t think anyone else can match his hold over the rank and file. And the mad scramble to do so will be when R’s will split, turn on each other, and either fade into irrelevance (ala California R’s) or return to reality. I have to hope for the second since I don’t think a single dominant party is a good thing.
Ironically I tend to think of Trump himself as the symptom, not the problem. The problem is decades of propaganda, and I’ve long thought of Gingrich, McConnell, Ailes, and Limbaugh as the Four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse. Trump is simply the demagogue who latched on to the BS they spread and the fault lines they nurtured and turned it into a nationwide phenomenon that took over the Republican party. But even though he didn’t create the conditions that led to where we are, he’s basically the head of the snake today. Until he’s gone and Republican unity is scrambled we not only won’t progress, we won’t be able to address the underlying problem, and we will always be a hairsbreadth away from a real stolen election and civil war.
@Steven L. Taylor: It is widely accepted that not only did Goldwater inspire the Southern Strategy of Nixon, it paved the way toward Reagan.
The things to watch are party registration numbers and donations. If you see either going south beyond the usual fluctuations, then the GOP has problems.
If there ever was a GOP Civil War the Trump Cult already won Whar we are seeing now is a purge from the party of anyone who fors not show complete loyalty to Trump. Liz Cheney’s fate comf confirmed that.
Like I said on Twitter, it is hard for me to see a situation in which she remains in the party as a “purge.”
And even if she is ousted, one person is a pretty lame purge.
@Kylopod: TBH, at this point I am not sure what we are arguing about.
@Michael Reynolds: The thing to watch is how many elections are won. That’s what the goal is. Not registrations, not even contributions. It is winning office.
Only losing will cause a substantial shift in behavior. Significant, deep losses.
I would like to see a prediction market for the OTB commentariat. Might bring some clarity to the many opinions, add skin to the game, etc. This would lend itself to any number of frequent discussion topics. Eg, the next congressional election, presidential election, short-term future of R party. Stuff like that.
If not prediction markets per se, it would be fun (and clarifying) to see people think in bets and to actually make some wagers with each other. A scoreboard might be fun too but perhaps that would gild the lily.
Anyway, this occurred to me as I read Steven’s post and the follow-up comments…feel free to ignore (it and me).
@Mimai:..a prediction market for the OTB commentariat.
Sounds like fun. In the meantime while we are all waiting for this to materialize let’s go back six months to Monday, November 2, 2020 and check out the hopes and dreams of the OTB Chattering Class.
Cracker, I don’t think Cheney stands a chance here in her next election. We’ve got this total Trumpie, Anthony Bouchard, who’s ripping it up on Facebook with his carrot/stick on Medicaid expansion, he’s like Marjorie Taylor Greene in his schtick, but male. The “elite” in Wyoming like Liz, but now that she’s out of power and doesn’t actually live here, anyways….it remains to be seen. I don’t think Mark Gordon will run for a second term as governor, either. He’s actually been pretty decent, for a Republican, but the Trumpie’s call him Stalin.
@Just Another Ex-Republican: If Trump runs again in 2024 and wins, I predict he will be reduced to a drooling imbecile before his term ends. His behavior is already showing his instability. What that means for the country, I have no idea.
@Mimai: Well, if I wrong about something (like I was about Trump’s nomination, perhaps most specifically) I will very much hear about it for years to come, if that helps any.
I will note that I am not really making a prediction, save that the GOP will not really be motivated to alter its behavior until it is convinced that what it is doing is a loser.
2016 is close enough of a winning formula that they think they can replicate it. They did better in Congressional races in 2020 than they expected, so they think they can build on that. Trump did not lose as badly as the polls said he would, so they figure doubling down is the thing to do.
And so, here we are.
@Steven L. Taylor: Ha, yes, I imagine you will hear about it! I didn’t mean to focus on you or anyone in particular. Rather, my intent was to highlight how easy (and common) it is to toss out opinions willy-nilly and with such confidence. Thinking in bets tends to separate the signal from the noise and hold people accountable for their opinions, which I think improves our discourse. Note, I am all for bullshitting and such, but it seems to me we have enough of that already and not enough of the, er, non-bullshitting skin-in-the-game types of prediction.
@Mimai: I figure that posting under my own name for 18 years in a way that could negatively impact me professionally if I was radically and consistently wrong is skin enough 😉
@Steven L. Taylor: Yep. You have a professional reputation to uphold (which is not to say that is your only motivation). Other folks, not so much. Indeed, it seems like there’s a competition of sorts to see who can make the most strident prediction and/or put forth the most flamboyant opinion.
Again, I’m fine with wild spit-balled opinions when they are labeled as such. But since they are not typically labeled, it’s tough to know when someone is bullshitting vs. when they are being serious. And it takes effort to get clarification, which stifles productive discussion.