Let’s not beat around the bush: The Republican Party has pretty much lost its mind. In the time since the 2020 election, rather than trying to make a new start after the disaster of the Trump years, it has become more radical and more extreme. Most important of all, it has emphatically and comprehensively rejected democracy itself.
Now here’s the scariest part: There’s almost no reason to believe that this will hurt the ability of Republicans to win elections and take back the power they’ve lost.
Polarization is the reason — but that dry political science term doesn’t properly convey the danger it contains.
If you’re like many Americans, you probably think there’s almost nothing your own party could do that would make you vote for the other party. But your conception of “what my party would do” is limited by what it has done, or even contemplated doing, in the past. When you imagine your party going “too far,” you probably think of it nominating a presidential candidate you don’t like or pursuing a misguided policy objective.
But that’s not what’s happening right now with the GOP. They are not just abandoning any commitment to democracy, they’re preparing an outright war on the American political system. And so far there’s little evidence that they’ll pay a price for it.
By preparing to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership position specifically because she refuses to parrot the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, House Republicans have put that lie at the center of their party’s identity.
Meanwhile in Arizona, a bonkers “audit” of the state’s presidential ballots ordered by the state Senate in a desperate attempt to prove that the election was stolen from Trump has proved to be an absolute carnival of craziness. They’re literally searching for bamboo fibers in the ballots to see if they may have come from China and are thus part of a global conspiracy.
Meanwhile, two of the party’s most toxic figures, Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) are on a triumphant tour, whipping up the party faithful with lies about 2020 and war cries for the next election.
I’m quite sure that outside of a few truly deranged members, almost all elected Republicans in Congress know that Trump lost. But they’re making a calculation that because of polarization, it doesn’t matter how extreme they get, what kind of lies they encourage people to believe, or what kind of damage they do to our system. If they can keep their base angry, it will give them the path back to power.
Why do they think that? Start with the fact that Democratic control of the House is already hanging by a six-vote thread. In midterm elections, the president’s party almost always loses seats, often by the dozens. While nothing is guaranteed yet, the Democrats’ chances of holding the House next November are small. They could easily lose the Senate as well, even though Republicans will be defending more seats.
All that is true despite the fact that the Republican Party is still in thrall to the most disastrous president of any of our lifetimes, one whose incompetence helped result in hundreds of thousands of American deaths and the implosion of our economy.
Yes, Trump lost. But not by the 23-point margins of the 1964 and 1972 elections. By just 4½ percentage points.
In today’s Republican Party, polarization doesn’t just mean there’s almost nothing the party could do that would cause its support to collapse. It means there is literally nothing it could do.
That’s not to say there aren’t some independents and even moderate Republicans who have abandoned the GOP, driven away by Trump and what he represents. In 2018, they helped Democrats take the House, and in 2020, they helped Joe Biden win the presidency.
But the GOP’s base remains sizable enough that they’re always in a position to win, even with those defections. And at the state level, they not only hold the bulk of the power, they’ve gerrymandered state legislative seats so ruthlessly that in some places it’s essentially impossible for Democrats to take control no matter how resoundingly they win the support of the electorate.
So show me the Republicans in Washington who will lose their seats for being too supportive of Trump and the “big lie” of the stolen election. Who are they? The combination of gerrymandering, geographical sorting and polarization means there are almost none. The party can get steadily more unhinged and more implacably opposed to democracy, with consequences for its electoral fortunes that are temporary at most.
All it would take to return them to complete power in Washington is an ordinary midterm election followed by an economic downturn in 2024, whereupon whichever cynical extremist they nominate for president could sneak into the White House.
We keep waiting for the moment when the country says, “Now you’ve gone too far, Republicans,” and sends them into oblivion. But the truth is, they see no reason to change the path they’re on. And they might be right.