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A Republican Party Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

Will it be fight or flight for good-faith conservatives during this existential crisis?

December 15, 2020
Anadolu Agency/Contributor/Getty

Seems to me that good-faith conservatives and “Never Trumpers” have two primary choices in the wake of one of the most dismaying fortnights in modern American political history. They can stand taller in opposition to Donald Trump and try to force from the Republican Party the anti-democratic, anti-science, conspiracy theorists who have spent the past five weeks trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Or they can abandon what’s left of the GOP to the delusionists and the ignorant and the ill-meaning and create a legitimate third party that gives earnest, honest Republicans another viable option at the ballot box in 2022 and beyond.

What anti-Trump Republicans can no longer do in the wake of the party’s chilling embrace of Trump’s attempted coup is to pretend that their party can exist, “half free and half slave”, with its future held captive by a vengeful, unhinged ex-president and his many enablers and propagandists. If the events of the past five weeks have shown the reality-based world anything, it is that the Republican Party itself has been corrupted by Trumpism to the point where it endangers American democracy itself. The postelection period also has made clear that the Trumpists will never peacefully coexist with who’s left of reality-based Republicans.

You can have intra-party disputes over immigration reform and the minimum wage, health care and criminal justice, foreign policy and the Second Amendment. The Democrats have those fights all the time (indeed, they are having one now over Biden nominees). But you cannot have an intra-party dispute over democracy itself, over whether the certified loser of a presidential election should foment civil unrest by promoting debunked conspiracy theories about nonexistent voter fraud. Whatever remains of the democratic wing of the Republican Party is in an existential fight with the ascendant authoritarian wing of the Republican Party. 

In his smart piece earlier this month about the key role Never Trumpers and other Republicans played in helping to defeat Trump’s reelection bid, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne also pondered the point about the future of the party but undersold the danger of its anti-democratic elements. “Some of the anti-Trump conservatives never lost their old faith and were simply repelled by Trump’s odiousness,” Dionne wrote. “For them, there is no temptation to join the other side. They are unlikely to give much support to Biden and will go off in search of a more conventional Republican to champion in 2024.”

Dionne wrote his piece before 126 Republican members of the House signed onto a bogus lawsuit brought last week by the state of Texas seeking to overturn the election results of four other states Trump lost to Biden. He wrote it before we learned that only a few dozen congressional Republicans were willing to acknowledge the fact that Biden won the election even though he’s now been certified the winner. He wrote it before Trump turned on the Supreme Court because no justices, not even his hand-picked trio, would soil their reputations by defending his indefensible legal arguments.

The selection of a “more conventional Republican to champion in 2024” also seems like a bad bet today given the silent, spineless way in which Republican officials acknowledged Trump’s Supreme Court defeat over the weekend and are said to be readying new, futile election challenges in Congress in the coming weeks. It also seems like a bad bet after a weekend in which pro-Trump protesters in the nation’s capital chanted “destroy the GOP” as they rallied against the two Republican senatorial candidates preparing for the Georgia runoff. They already have destroyed the GOP, these amateur authoritarians, but they are back for more.

Some Republican members of Congress whined this past weekend that their embrace of Trump’s lost cause is simply a reflection of the furious desires of their constituents to do something about the voter fraud they are convinced has occurred. They have a choice, these elected Republicans. They can act honorably and defend the Constitution from bad faith attempts to usurp it or they can remain hostage to the illiberal, illogical mob that believes the fantasy that Trump won the 2020 election. One path leads to the restoration of American democratic ideals. The other leads to the authoritarian end of the American experiment. 

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. The rightward call to arms to fight Trumpism must sound not just for the good folks at the Lincoln Project, or decent public servants like former independent candidate Evan McMullin, but also for elected officials like Sens. Mitt Romney (UT) and Lisa Murkowski (AK), former officials like George and Jeb Bush, and sitting governors like Charlie Baker and Mike DeWine. It must sound to every conservative who recognizes the danger Trumpism portends to genuine conservative principles. Surely we can all agree that whatever else federalism is, for example, it’s not about Texas telling Pennsylvania how to run its elections.

Many disaffected Republicans voted this election cycle for Biden and those votes likely made the difference in close races across the country. But such a result this time around is no substitute for a long-term answer to the long-term problem posed by Trumpism. The next Republican presidential candidate, it it is not Trump, likely will be a slicker, more competent authoritarian. And the next Democratic presidential candidate, if it is not Biden, is likely to be a less moderate, and certainly less well known, figure. Those Republican votes for Biden aren’t likely to stay long term in the Democratic column. At least no one should count on it.

Going forward, elected Republican officials have to choose in the short term between democracy itself and Trumpism. That means they should occasionally collaborate with Democrats to shore up the guardrails of democracy and turn the foundational norms that Trump has trashed into law and policy that the next authoritarian will not be able to manipulate so easily. For starters, this means that good-faith Republicans must support the For the People Act (H.R. 1), the House-passed legislation that would help protect the integrity and security of our elections and make it easier for more Americans to cast legal ballots. Doesn’t get more basic than that. 

Good-faith Republican officials also ought to support the creation and work of some sort of blue ribbon commission to investigate the sweeping crimes, corruption, and corrosion of the Trump era. They ought to support legislation that creates new and better protection for civil servants so they can no longer be abused by a future president the way they were abused by Trump. There is, as we survey the wreckage of the past four years, a significant subset of laws and policies fundamental to a working democracy that elected Republican officials could endorse before pivoting to partisanship over more mundane policy choices 

It’s not hard to understand why Never Trumpers look at the size of Trump’s 2020 vote total — massive by any standard other than Biden’s tally — and wonder what good would come from a third-party bid. They understand the breadth of voter loyalty to Trump and worry that a third party might guarantee future Trumpist victories by siphoning more votes from crossover voters who would otherwise choose a Democrat than from voters willing to turn their cultish backs on Trump. I don’t think that’s true. I think a conservative third party would take more from Republican candidates than from Democratic ones. 

But I also thought that Trump would get fewer votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. The questions today are: What does it mean to be an honorable conservative in the age of Trump? How many votes would a legitimate third-party candidate receive running on a platform that emphasizes fiscal restraint, strong national defense, governmental competency, and a respect for the honorable enforcement of law? And if Never Trumpers are to strike back and wrestle for control of the Republican party, how can they succeed when so many Republican voters remain enthralled by propagandist media organs controlled by Trump sycophants? 

It’s nothing short of a national tragedy that so many Republican politicians have encouraged and enabled Trump to this point and now can’t or won’t stand up to him as he tries to take the party and the country over the cliff. It’s disheartening to realize how cynical so many of these Republicans have been as they’ve benefitted from Trumpist policies while pretending that what Trump stands for isn’t as bad as it seems. But the past doesn’t have to be a prologue. The nation’s political future depends on how the civil war within the Republican party plays out. We’ve seen since Election Day how high those stakes actually are.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.