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Opinion Trump’s grip on the GOP just tightened. Here’s what that means for Democrats.

The U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference, which begins Feb. 25, will host former president Donald Trump's first public appearance since leaving office. (Video: Reuters)

When Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference next weekend, his message will go a lot deeper than simply reinforcing the message that the GOP is still Trump’s party.

According to sources who spoke to Axios, the former president will communicate that he is still fully “in charge” of the GOP and is the “presumptive 2024 nominee” if he deigns to run. But the message will also be that he will endorse primary challenges to anti-Trump heretics — meaning Republicans who hope for political futures must maintain absolute loyalty to him.

This ongoing development calls forth obligations from Democrats. First, they need to communicate effectively with the public about what a malignancy on democracy the GOP is becoming amid this worsening radicalization.

Second, this recognition gives rise to another one — that, broadly speaking, the GOP simply will not function anytime soon as a participant in our democracy when it comes to addressing large public problems. That means Democrats have to go as big as possible on policy in their first two years, on their own if necessary.

After all, the GOP may well seize control of the House in 2022 — largely due to its escalating reliance on counter-majoritarian tactics — which would grind President Biden’s agenda to a halt in the face of those problems.

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In an interview, Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hinted at an understanding along these lines.

“Dangerous elements are controlling the Republican Party,” Maloney told me. “They’ve got their hands around its neck right now.”

Maloney cited the GOP’s broad support for Trump’s refusal to accept the seriousness of coronavirus and for his effort to overturn the election, as well as its refusal to punish QAnon-sympathetic Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) despite endorsing political violence against Democrats.

The GOP, said Maloney, has “become a danger to our democracy and our public health.”

Trump’s grip really is tightening

There is ample reason to believe Trump’s tightened grip on the GOP is working, at least in some ways.

Trump advisers say he will support primary challengers to elected Republicans who have “crossed him,” as Axios reports. One Trump adviser said: “Trump effectively is the Republican Party.”

Many Republican officials are plainly in thrall to this notion. They are widely censuring the Republican lawmakers who have “attacked” Trump by voting to hold him accountable for trying to incite the violent overthrow of U.S. democracy.

In short, loyalty to Trump means Republicans must pledge absolute fealty to his evolving mythology. The 2020 election was a monstrous injustice perpetrated on Trump (it was stolen from him), and whatever efforts he undertook to overturn the results were uniformly peaceful (he had nothing to do with the violent insurrection) and an absolutely legitimate effort to right that wrong.

As Democratic strategist Dan Pfeiffer points out, GOP voters are far more in thrall to Trump’s mythos than to anything elected party leaders tell them. This will make it hard to evolve the party past Trump without fracturing it.

Indeed, an extraordinary new USA Today poll underscores the point. Fully half of Trump voters say the GOP should become more loyal to Trump, even as more than 9 out of 10 say Trump didn’t incite an insurrection, and 73 percent say Biden didn’t legitimately get elected.

And this is having forward-looking consequences. As Amy Gardner reports, Republicans are implementing new voting restrictions across the country. Critically, they are casting these measures as necessary to restore confidence in elections, because so many people believe it was stolen from Trump:

Proponents say the actions are necessary because large numbers of voters believe Trump’s false assertions that President Biden won the 2020 election through widespread fraud.

In short, the big lie that the election was stolen from Trump — and the fact that a lot of Republican voters believe this — is becoming the fake justification for more voter suppression and a redoubled commitment to winning future elections with counter-majoritarian tactics.

All this underscores the stakes of the next two years. Republicans are openly boasting that they will use extreme gerrymanders to recapture the House in 2022, and some experts believe they can do this even if Democrats win the national popular vote.

Losing the House to an increasingly radicalized GOP would go a long way toward crippling the country’s ability to respond to large public problems.

The stakes are incredibly high

This intensifies pressure on Democrats to hold the House, of course, which in turn requires a reckoning with why Democrats lost a dozen House seats in 2020 even as they won the White House and Senate.

When I asked DCCC Chair Maloney how the party will learn from 2020, he promised a “deep” analysis into those losses, “to understand what lessons there are both in terms of where we can do better, but also what worked so well in places like Georgia.”

Maloney noted that this analysis will look at what went wrong with outreach in Latino communities — where Trump and Republicans gained ground — and how to improve communications on digital and social media.

But this state of affairs will also require communicating with the public about what today’s Trump-controlled GOP has become — with a particular emphasis on how its descent renders it incapable of handling big pressing problems facing the country.

“They are divided and under siege from their dangerous elements,” Maloney told me. “If that’s where they continue to take themselves, then I believe they will separate themselves from the voters they need to win.”

“Swing voters in swing districts,” Maloney said, will “not follow the Republican Party to crazytown.”

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