The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More Republicans are dumping Trump. But the GOP still imperils democracy.

A video of Donald Trump is played during a hearing on July 21 for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Al Drago/AP)

No one can say the House Jan. 6 select committee has had no effect on the right wing. In reaction to the committee’s hearings, the right-wing editorial boards of the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal (both Rupert Murdoch publications) have decided Donald Trump is a menace to America. The New York Post rejected him as a 2024 candidate, and the Journal said Trump “utterly failed” to perform his duties as chief executive.

Forget for a moment that many of these facts were known 18 months ago, when these news outlets were defending and rationalizing the outrageous conduct of the former president. Forget also that the nighttime lineup of Murdoch’s other prominent outlet, Fox “News,” still defends Trump. What is clear is that the Jan. 6 committee has made it safe, or perhaps even necessary, for prominent right-wing media outlets to dump him. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

One does not have to be a psychologist to know that members of these editorial boards have understood for some time that the “big lie” was destructive and that the Trump-led insurrection is incompatible with democracy. But it’s only now that they feel compelled to kick Trump to the curb.

One explanation of their sudden change of heart is expediency. They — like many GOP donors and an increasing segment of Republicans — have become disgusted with the drama and are nervous that having led an insurrection might be a disadvantage for the presidential nominee in 2024. Now that the facts of that insurrection are so widely known and the mainstream media are amplifying the hearings, even some Republicans (e.g., Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson) are ruling out support for Trump. It seems they have finally concluded it simply is not possible to defend Trump’s conduct outside the core of MAGA cultists.

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The other (not mutually exclusive) explanation is that Republicans have begun to consider less embarrassing alternatives to Trump who could deliver the same outcomes. While some MAGA extremists have prevailed in the primary elections (e.g., Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania’s governor race), others have belly-flopped (e.g., David Perdue running for Georgia governor).

Certainly, dumping a compulsive liar, authoritarian narcissist and possible defendant in multiple criminal cases could be a plus for Republicans. But it’s not a panacea. The two most dangerous features of Trumpism are very much alive and dominate the GOP.

First, the party has inarguably turned antidemocratic. It wants fewer voters. It wants partisan control of election administration. Many “mainstream” Republicans still leave open the possibility they would have refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory. And state parties continue to drum out of their ranks 2020 truth-tellers such as Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers. Remember: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) was the only Republican senator willing to debate a national voting rights bill, including a reinstatement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Second, the Republican Party has gone all-in when it comes to White Christian nationalism, insisting the state use its power to impose reactionary religious views. Theodore R. Johnson, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s fellows program, writes:

Think of the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, who marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” who proselytize the “Great Replacement” theory, or who champion a religious ethnonationalism that harks to the covenant myth. They reject multicultural American identity. ...
Or think of the various battles in our long-raging culture war — the “don’t say gay” bills, paranoia about critical race theory, intolerance of free speech rights for people with different beliefs, identity politics, debates about racial and gender equality, etc. Often in these kinds of disputes one side insists that there is only one way to be American. They seem to demand conformity and threaten ostracism.

Indeed, it’s arguably more important for Republican politicians to be warriors for Christian nationalism and generators of racial grievance than Trump apologists. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas continue to build their brands around fear-mongering against critical race theory, anti-immigrant animus and attacks on LGBTQ families. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, put out a multi-part plan strewn with talking points on abortion, LGBTQ Americans and race with ample references to Christianity, including a declaration that “the nuclear family is crucial to civilization, it is God’s design for humanity, and it must be protected and celebrated.” More than 70 percent of House Republicans voted against a bill that would protect gay marriage.

So while it’s true that some Republicans are moving on from Trump, his two legacies — authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism — still dominate the GOP. The threat to pluralistic democracy remains.