The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Grand Old Party of disarray

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill on Aug. 4. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

One of our two major political parties is in embarrassing disarray. Hint: It’s not the Democrats.

We are bombarded daily with heavy-lies-the-crown tales of woe about President Biden, Vice President Harris and the razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican Party somehow evades similar scrutiny and skepticism. The truth is that if you want to see a portrait of factionalism and aimlessness, look closely at the dysfunctional collection of politicians that once could legitimately call itself the Grand Old Party.

Today’s Republicans agree wholeheartedly on one thing: ambition for power. That’s because, at least in Washington, they have so little of it: Under President Donald Trump, the GOP lost the White House and control of both the House and Senate, a rare trifecta not achieved since Herbert Hoover.

Thanks to Trump, the party also lost anything resembling a coherent philosophy. Republicans used to believe in tight fiscal policy but cheered while Trump spent wildly. They used to worry about the national debt but acquiesced while Trump racked up massive deficits. They used to believe in a muscular foreign policy but cheered while Trump swooned into bromances with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

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And Republicans used to make a big deal of supporting law enforcement. Now, though, they collectively pretend that the Capitol insurrection — during which scores of police officers were attacked and bludgeoned by a violent mob — was nothing more than “one day in January,” as former vice president Mike Pence put it in October.

Karen Tumulty: Mike Pence did a service to democracy on Jan. 6. Why is he trying to undo it now?

Republicans are also forced to pretend that last year’s election was somehow “stolen” by Biden and the Democrats, knowing this is not true. Party stalwarts who consider themselves mainstream see indulging this paranoid fantasy of widespread voter fraud as nothing more than a tactical necessity. But fast-forward to next year’s midterm election season: What do they think true-believer, Trump-endorsed, loony-bin candidates will claim when they lose close primary races against mainstream incumbents? How can it possibly be a good idea for elected officials to encourage their party’s base to distrust all elections?

The GOP’s big problem, of course, is Trump. I have no idea whether he actually intends to run again in 2024. But it is abundantly clear that he means to reign as the party’s de facto emperor for the foreseeable future, aware that even grandees such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) dare not defy him.

The party had the chance to dump Trump after Jan. 6 but decided not to risk it. Now the GOP is stuck with him — and beholden to his moods, whims, obsessions and machinations.

Much is made of the fact that 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 in the House voted for the landmark $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law Monday. But Trump lambasted the “RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] in the House and Senate [who] gave Biden and Democrats a victory,” singling out McConnell by name. And even McConnell wasn’t brave enough to attend the bill’s signing ceremony, citing unspecified (and probably nonexistent) “other things I’ve got to do.”

In other words, Emperor Trump’s position is that Republicans must obstruct initiatives that clearly would benefit their constituents but would also give “wins” to Biden and the Democrats. Not being able to claim credit for job-creating projects in their communities might not hurt GOP candidates next fall. But it sure won’t help them.

The party is saddled not just with Trump but also with his most unhinged acolytes — people such as Reps. Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (N.C.). When Gosar shared a cartoon video violently threatening a fellow member of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), House GOP leaders refused even to comment, much less issue the kind of rebuke that once would have been almost automatic.

Republicans who actually want to fulfill their oath to the Constitution and participate in governing — such as Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who serves on the House Select Committee investigating the insurrection; or Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), who voted for the infrastructure bill — receive death threats from Trumpist fanatics. The party claims to believe in “freedom,” especially from mandates for coronavirus vaccines and masks. But it no longer demonstrably believes in democracy.

Are Biden and the Democrats struggling to enact their ambitious agenda? Of course; governing is hard. Could they do a better job of communicating their successes? Don’t get me started.

But seeing the GOP as some kind of unstoppable juggernaut is wrong. It’s more like a group of hostages and hostage-takers, united only in a quest for power, not knowing or caring why.