The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As the GOP war over Trump gets more vicious, Democrats have a big opening

Former president Donald Trump slammed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Feb. 16, days after the Senate acquitted him in his second impeachment trial. (Video: Reuters)
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The rage-addled statement that Donald Trump has fired at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell plunged the GOP into worsening infighting. But as Republicans reacted to the former president’s missive, it also revealed a glaring tension in the story they are telling about his legacy.

It’s a tension that Democrats can exploit to their advantage.

The tension is this: On one hand, Republicans widely acknowledge that Trump cost them the House, Senate and White House. On the other, they continue to hail the Trump presidency as a great triumph — not just on policy, but a political success as well.

Both can be true: Even as Trump drove a large diaspora of moderate, suburban, educated Whites to Democrats (who won the White House and Congress), Trump also brought millions of low-propensity conservative voters into the GOP coalition.

But the tension between these two ideas — that Trump cost the GOP control of Washington, even as his activation of a new GOP constituency was a political success — is deepening.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham’s latest appearance on Fox News neatly captured this tension. Graham was responding to the news that Trump blasted McConnell and threatened to run pro-Trump primary challengers, as retaliation for McConnell’s belated criticism of Trump for inciting the insurrection.

“He is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party,” Graham said, hailing Trump as a transformative figure: “We don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump.”

Graham suggested Republican self-interest requires looking past the insurrection and acknowledging Trump’s importance to their party’s future chances.

The GOP needs Trump?

In this, you see Republicans deciding that the GOP’s future requires holding that latter body of voters activated by Trump. Just as Trumpified GOP turnout helped lift downballot Republicans to some 2020 wins — even as he hemorrhaged suburbanites, costing him the White House — Republicans hope his voters will lift GOP candidates in 2022.

Many Republicans have spoken explicitly to the need to keep Trump and his voters happy for this reason. Hence the need to retain fealty to Trump.

The rub lies in what declaring fealty to Trump really requires.

It is devolving into little more than a requirement that Republicans hew to QAnon-ified fantasies about the election’s illegitimacy, and that they aggressively hate on the constellation of phantom enemies that, more than anything else, have come to define Trumpism.

What’s missing is any sense that fealty to Trump requires any sort of policy agenda along the lines of the economic populism that was supposed to animate the true spirit of Trumpism. Which gives Democrats an opening to fill the populist space themselves.

Trumpism’s descent into madness

We see this on multiple fronts. The New York Times has an extraordinary report on Michigan Republicans pledging undying loyalty to Trump. GOP Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted for impeachment, is getting hammered as a “traitor” who “betrayed” the GOP base, even as a top GOP leader was caught dismissing the insurrection as a “hoax.”

Here you see Trumpism degrading into the demand that elected Republicans maintain fealty to the myth that the election was illegitimate and that Trump didn’t incite any insurrection at all.

Or take Tucker Carlson. He is now claiming the Texas power shortage resulted from the power grid being “totally reliant on windmills” which then froze, supposedly proving the Green New Deal will be a fiasco.

In fact, most of the problem came from natural gas and coal. Yet as Matt Gertz shows, the idea that wind is the culprit is a widespread Fox meme, with some rage directed at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

In other words, here Carlson — a hero of the new conservative populism — is largely indistinguishable from the other empty Fox News vessels. The Green New Deal and “AOC” are in the constellation of enemies that define Trumpism, so the default position on the Texas blackout must be to make stuff up to attack them.

Meanwhile, as Noam Scheiber reports, the Biden administration is developing a conception of industrial policy that would use government to incentivize the shift to a green energy economy, but as a job creator. That could give blue-collar workers a stake in this transformation — inhabiting the populist space with progressive answers.

Conservative populists are ceding that space on other fronts. When Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) rolled out a well-received plan for a tax credit of at least $3,000 per child to fight childhood poverty, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) attacked it as “welfare.”

Rubio is also a champion of the new conservative populism. It’s supposed to offer a decisive break with plutocratic GOP economic orthodoxy while championing immigration restrictionism, suspicion of internationalist solutions to problems such as climate change, and nationalist industrial policy to counter China.

Yet here Rubio is reverting to a very Paul Ryan-esque conception of government assistance as a drag on incentives. This sort of thing, too, clears the way for Democrats to fill the populist space with their own robust populist progressivism, via large expenditures on economic assistance and stimulus, and their own version of industrial policy.

All this is hastening Trumpism’s devolution into QAnon and cult-of-Trump crackpottery.

Samuel Hammond, a policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, points out that the promise of Trumpism, at least in its respectable version, was supposed to be partly that it offered “bold policies” to problems such as “the decline in working-class jobs.”

Instead, Hammond notes, Trumpism has devolved into “conspiracy theories all the way down and hatred of the leftist enemy.”

“What that means,” Hammond concluded, “is that Democrats have space to occupy that vacuum and in some ways be more authentically populist than Trump or Trumpism ever could be.”

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Joe Biden is just where he wanted to be

Megan McArdle: There is no Trumpism. There is only Trump.

David Von Drehle: This Texas weather is a chilling reminder about our battered power grid

Leana S. Wen: The vaccinated need to know: What’s safe for them to do?

Erik Wemple: CNN’s Chris Cuomo is reminding us why conflicts of interest poison the news

David Ignatius: Only the truth will keep Trump away