After Sen. Lindsey Graham’s startling admission about Trump on Fox News, this story should be a lot harder to sustain.
“I would just say to my Republican colleagues, can we move forward without President Trump?” the South Carolina Republican told Sean Hannity on Thursday night. “The answer is no.”
Graham then referenced the battle among Republicans over whether to remove Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from the House GOP leadership for demanding that Republicans fully renounce Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
“She’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump,” Graham said. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”
Noting that Trump had broadened the GOP’s appeal to “working men and women” with his “economic populism” and “America First” agenda, Graham said: “If you don’t get that as a Republican, you’re making the biggest mistake in the history of the Republican Party.”
Graham’s comment has sparked some “LOL the GOP is a Trump cult” online snark. But it’s a shockingly candid and illuminating admission in other, less obvious ways.
What Lindsey Graham revealed
First, it exposes the hollowness of the Trumpist economic populist nationalism Graham himself references. A handful of Republicans are crafting a “conservative populism” designed to keep alive this Trumpist appeal to the working class.
But if, as Graham suggests, keeping the Trumpist flame burning with the working-class voters Trump engaged requires keeping Trump himself happy by purging a senior leader for telling the truth about his attacks on democracy, then plainly these “economic populist” ideas don’t have much force on their own.
Second, Graham’s comments are strikingly revealing about the GOP midterm playbook. The New York Times reports that as part of this strategy, Republicans are mostly avoiding talking about President Biden’s covid-19 relief bill and plans for big infrastructure investments, because they’re popular.
Instead, Republicans are making the midterms all about supposed Democratic plans to pack the Supreme Court, defund the police and open our borders, as well as the Green New Deal, critical race theory and transgender Americans playing school sports.
As the Times reports, Republicans say they will use these issues in part to win back “moderate Republican voters and independents who broke with the party during the Trump years” but have been “alienated” by all this Democratic extremism.
But, as the Times notes, this effort to win back suburbanites will be badly complicated by the need to energize the large numbers of GOP voters who remain “fiercely loyal” to Trump and “want the party to represent his values.” The blowup over Cheney has demonstrated that this is a “difficult balance to achieve.”
Why Liz Cheney is such a problem
But why might Cheney be complicating this strategy? Because it reveals the radicalization of the Republican Party, in tandem with the GOP base’s continued thraldom to Trump, exactly the figure who drove away those suburbanites in the first place.
The story Republicans want to tell is that Democrats are the real extremists, and centrist voters are returning to the GOP in horror. Instead, while Democrats do have to address perceptions of excess on things like wokeism and police reform, their main policies are winning broad mainstream approval, while Republicans are lurching to the extreme right to please their radicalizing base.
Now Graham has laid this bare with striking clarity. As Graham admits, Cheney needs to be purged precisely because the way for the Republican Party to stay competitive is to keep the voters Trump brought into the GOP coalition engaged. And the way to do that is to stop all this crazy talk about repudiating the idea that the election was stolen from him.
Interestingly, the career trajectory of Cheney’s likely replacement in the House GOP leadership — Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — confirms the point. As Paul Kane reports in a great piece, Stefanik was originally an orthodox Paul Ryan-type Republican, but her district’s GOP voters shifted with Trump’s rise.
Now Stefanik is merely pivoting along with the base and wants to be seen primarily as an “America First” acolyte. But here again, the truth is revealed: She isn’t executing this pivot by talking more about “economic populism.”
Indeed, leading conservative populists are actually skeptical of Stefanik’s commitment to their policy views. Instead, Stefanik is pivoting with the base by becoming a leading proponent of the idea that Trump’s 2020 loss is in doubt.
‘Trump is the secret sauce’
GOP strategist Liam Donovan underscores the point, noting that fundraising appeals from Republican politicians are frequently about the victimization of Trump in one way or another, most recently focusing on Big Tech’s alleged censorship of him.
“Trump is the secret sauce,” Donovan told me. “The notion that Trump is being canceled or otherwise victimized is rocket fuel to the small-dollar base.”
Forget about “economic populism.” By Graham’s own account, the mythology of Trump victimization is what’s necessary to keep the base engaged. Without it, Trumpism as a mobilizing force cannot survive.