The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican Party’s future: Being terrorized by its unhinged base

Trump supporters demonstrate outside the Supreme Court building in Washington on Nov. 14. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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When President Trump finally leaves office on Jan. 20, he will bequeath to Joe Biden a disaster to rival those any president has faced: a raging pandemic, an economy still in crisis, a federal government degraded and demoralized. Just digging out of the mess will be a challenge for the ages.

Meanwhile, Trump’s party will have a straightforward task: As they did with President Barack Obama, the Republicans will try to obstruct whatever Biden might want to do, sabotage the economic recovery if they can and generally do whatever is in their power to make him fail. But as they do so, they are likely to be riven by another echo of the Obama years: an internal conflict pitting the party’s angriest elements against an elite they will declare to be insufficiently devoted to the cause.

Go back to 2009 and the rise of the tea party movement, and you should recall the general feeling of chaos that gripped our politics. Amid a national economic crisis, a movement sprang up that was both genuinely grass-roots and assisted by elite Republicans. It was loud and aggrieved, and it filled the Republican Party with fear.

It did so because, from the beginning, its targets were not only Obama, whom it saw as an illegitimate president, but because it regarded as a quisling any Republican whose opposition to Obama was not strong, outraged or effective enough.

The defeat of a couple of establishment Republican officeholders by tea party challengers in primaries was enough to fill others in the GOP with terror. Lest they run afoul of this ravenous beast, they joined the tea party cause, held dozens of meaningless votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and even shut down the government to prove that they were fighting with the appropriate vigor.

That history is likely to replay itself in 2021 and beyond. But, this time, the Republican base is even crazier than before.

The MAGA march on D.C. showed Trump supporters are not a monolith, but their dedication to the president is singular. (Video: The Washington Post)

Its members have spent four years swimming in Trump’s sea of paranoia and misinformation, and the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump will become their foundational belief. Any Republican who dismisses it will be branded a traitor to the cause.

We’re already seeing it; just look at what’s happening with Fox News, the right’s most important propaganda outlet. Despite the fact that Fox News hosts have been relentlessly pushing bogus claims of voter fraud and questioning the legitimacy of the election, significant portions of the GOP base have decided that the network’s commitment to Trump has waned, and, therefore, it must be part of the anti-Trump conspiracy. “Fox News sucks! Fox News sucks!” chanted the MAGA faithful at last week’s march of dead-enders in Washington.

And after Fox News’s Tucker Carlson called out Trump lawyer Sidney Powell on air for refusing to come on his show and detail her claims of a stolen election, “his [Twitter] mentions have been FLOODED with people calling him a traitor, sellout, etc.,” according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy. Keep in mind that Carlson didn’t actually criticize Powell for the lunatic claims she has been making (“President Trump won by a landslide,” she said at a Thursday news conference); he just wanted her to show the evidence.

So now, in the eyes of some, Carlson — who regularly advises Trump — is not Trumpy enough. In fact, some viewers have been leaving Fox News for the more pleasingly deranged content on Newsmax and One America News (OAN), where Trump is the true winner of the election and no conspiracy theory is too loopy to be believed. As Darcy points out, the strategy Fox has always used to maintain the loyalty of its viewers — telling them that every other news source is fatally infected with liberal bias — is now being deployed by those minor-league outlets against Fox itself.

If their critique is that Fox News is too establishment, they’re not wrong: From its founding in 1996, the network has always been equally devoted to the twin goals of making money and advancing the interests of the Republican Party. It represents and defines the center of gravity in the party, even as that center of gravity may shift.

So the near future could see Newsmax, OAN and other upstart outlets capture the attention of 2021’s version of the tea party, the latest right-wing backlash to a Democratic president. In between propagating lunatic conspiracy theories, they could wage war against traitorous Republicans whose loathing of Biden and all other Democrats is deemed insufficiently venomous.

In response, some Republicans will pander to the party’s nut cases, and others will try to finesse the questions they raise. But few will disavow them completely. Keep your eye on the likely 2024 presidential candidates — Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), as well as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley — as they jockey for advantage and try to find the party’s key points of influence. Once they start appearing on Newsmax, claiming the election was stolen, and giving winks and nods to QAnon and other conspiracy theories, you’ll see how deeply the madness has penetrated the GOP.

Though many of the Republican leaders who were reviled by the tea party, such as former speaker John Boehner and former congressman Eric Cantor, are no longer around, the ones still in office remember well what it was like. And now they’re going to have to go through it all over again.

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