Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party will soon be complete, and what had previously been a fringe element within the GOP will emerge fully in control. The two big lies — that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was not serious enough to merit an investigation — are no longer considered radical inside the GOP.
Republicans can be expected to take over the House of Representatives after the midterm elections — most likely by a considerable margin. Trump already dominates the GOP at the state and local levels, and with the notable exceptions of Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), has a vise-like grip on Republican House members. Even if Trump does not run in 2024, his views and policies now represent mainstream Republican thinking.
And even if the Democrats maintain their narrow grip on the Senate, what is left of the reasonable wing of the Republican Senate is about to disappear. The Republican half of the Senate is on the brink of a new, and irresponsible, era. The 2022 election will cement the trend.
The Senate Republican Caucus has been the last remaining guardrail preventing Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican Party. That is about to change. There are five senators from what passes for the “governing wing” of the Republican Party who have announced their retirements: Richard C. Shelby (Alabama), Roy Blunt (Missouri), Richard Burr (North Carolina), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pennsylvania). Because Trump carried all but one of these states (Pennsylvania) in 2020, it is a safe bet all these men will be replaced by more Trump acolytes. In each of these states, the Republican primary has been a referendum on which candidate is most similar to Trump.
It is only because of some of the soon-departing establishment Republicans — and a small handful of others — that President Biden got a hard infrastructure bill on his desk and an increase in the debt ceiling while at the same time allowing the government to remain open.
Because they control the redistricting process in most states, Republicans have been busy redrawing maps and packing swing districts to provide them with more conservative voters. Since winning a Republican congressional primary is tantamount to winning the general election, the GOP will have spent 2021 creating the conditions that will push the party even further to the right.
It might work: Based on trends since World War II, Republicans will likely rack up big wins in next year’s midterm elections. However, if history is any guide, the GOP will also misinterpret these successes as a mandate for their kind of change.
In 1994, the GOP picked up 54 House seats, eight Senate seats and 10 governorships — a colossal slaughter among Democrats. Yet Bill Clinton was easily reelected in 1996. In 2010, it happened again as Republicans picked up 63 House seats, six Senate seats, six governorships and 729 state legislative seats. And yet Barack Obama coasted to victory in 2012.
There are signs the GOP is still working from its old playbook. Over the past weekend, a memo was leaked showing that with their expected majority, House Republicans plan two years of investigations of the Biden administration as a way to stoke the culture wars ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The 2024 election will begin the day after the midterm elections. Trump easily eliminated any candidate he faced during the 2016 primaries, and he now has a much firmer grip on the GOP. That means the safest harbor for aspiring Republican presidential candidates in 2024 is to take as many extreme positions as possible in opposition to Biden and Democrats — but to do so in a way that avoids Trump’s wrath. This path might position them to fill the Trump vacuum if the former president chooses not to run — or begin the audition to be on the GOP ticket as vice president if he does.
These forces and factors guarantee that we are entering a phase far more volatile and divisive than the period we have just come through. The tremors felt during the Trump presidency and even the Jan. 6 Capitol siege will feel relatively mild compared to the days and months ahead.