In no small part, the GOP in the Donald Trump era has been marked by a craven failure to take offramps.
When Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) delivered her closing statement at Thursday’s Jan. 6 hearing, she offered Republicans one more offramp. She posed this question:
Every American must consider this: Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6th ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?
Now ask yourself this: Why will so few Republican lawmakers forthrightly answer Cheney’s question in the negative?
The failure of most leading Republicans to answer this question has the capacity to be a defining moment in Republican politics, perhaps for years to come. While every one of these situations has been different, other previous historical moments — McCarthyism, Watergate, the militia movements of the 1990s — created a similar crossroads for party elites.
The latest hearing starkly demonstrated that Trump knew many in the Jan. 6, 2021, mob were armed and adamantly wanted to lead the mob on a march to the Capitol anyway. Trump actively chose, again and again, not to call off the violence, and the committee linked this directly to his apparent desire for the mob to help complete his coup.
Even after the attack started, Trump pointed the mob at his vice president, Mike Pence, like a howitzer — even as Pence’s security detail thought his life and their own were in grave danger. White House lawyers were appalled by his obvious desire to keep the violent rampage going, and took his designs on Pence deadly seriously.
Republicans failed to render Trump unable to run again by overwhelmingly voting against his impeachment and conviction after Jan. 6. So Cheney is asking: Now that we have starkly demonstrated Trump’s depraved dereliction of duty and illustrated the full scope of his likely criminal coup attempt, are you ready to say at this point that he’s unfit as a leader of your party and the country?
So far, the answer is a resounding “no.” Trump remains the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination, and may announce as early as this year.
In her closing, Cheney framed the choice for GOP elites as a threshold moment. Her question essentially asks whether Trump’s leadership of a movement that is more or less dedicated to destroying constitutional democracy is disqualifying: At stake, she said, is whether we will “remain a free nation.”
It’s hard to see how this will play out with Republican elites. One possibility is a muddled resolution that sidelines Trump while harnessing the radical right-wing, and even insurrectionist, tendencies that were long nursed by Republicans but under Trump have been overtly embraced.
Geoff Kabaservice, a historian of the modern GOP, notes that such an outcome would resemble previous historical moments. Just as GOP elites today want to exploit energies Trump has exacerbated, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt “resonated with the Republican base very powerfully,” Kabaservice says, giving GOP elites “the possibility of riding his crusade.”
Ultimately, when McCarthyism really went off the rails and became a serious political liability, GOP elites mostly did not publicly break with him — though some did — but opted instead to quietly disable him via more discreet procedural channels.
There was not really a grand public moment of widespread repudiation or reckoning, Kabaservice says. Instead, they opted in McCarthyism’s aftermath to essentially say, “That chapter is closed, time to move on.”
Similarly, when Richard Nixon’s corruption became an overwhelming liability to the party, Kabaservice notes, much of the elite edging out of Nixon occurred via “private conversations.”
Then there’s the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Nicole Hemmer, author of a new book on 1990s Republicanism, points out that many Western Republicans did denounce the attack but continued to use incendiary anti-government language about jackbooted federal agents, and tacitly continued supporting the far-right militia movement.
“It took a lot of pushing to get even tepid disavowals,” Hemmer says. She notes that some Republicans preferred to allow the bombing to quietly pass without too much condemnation, to avoid antagonizing an “energetic part” of the base.
With Trump, one way this all ends, says Kabaservice, is that GOP elites quietly coalesce around GOP alternatives to Trump heading into 2024 — such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Meanwhile, they would cast Trump as an unfairly maligned but overly politically damaged victim of Democratic witch hunts.
In this endgame, Kabaservice notes, there would be “no open admission of error.” The narrative of Trump’s passing from the scene would be spun “in a post hoc way.”
In this scenario, Republicans would never decisively answer Cheney’s question. That would be a bad ending: Scholars of democratic breakdown believe a decisive repudiation by GOP elites of Trump’s crimes against the country could help avert a future of increased political instability and violence.
But the fact that Cheney’s question is still dangling out there, unanswered, suggests that may be the future that does await us.