The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Voters are a problem. But GOP leaders are steering the radicalism.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is trailed by a reporter as he walks to his office on Capitol Hill on Aug. 12. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Rep. Liz Cheney’s loss this week means that at most just two of the 10 House GOP members who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump last year will stay in Congress. Casting out Cheney, who had become the more forceful anti-Trump figure in the party, is the latest illustration of the hard-right views of many GOP voters. Not only did those voters choose Trump over a field of much more mainstream and qualified GOP presidential candidates back in 2016, but this year they also have nominated dozens of candidates across the country who won’t fully acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

But while the choices of Republican voters have been very bad, it’s Republican elected officials at the local, state and federal level who are really driving the party — and therefore the country — in a radical, undemocratic direction. These officials and politicians, including Trump, are the party’s most important and influential extremists.

To understand, and perhaps even combat, the GOP’s radical turn, it’s important to understand its root causes. I think of the GOP as having five distinct power centers: the party’s voters, elected officials, superwealthy conservative donors, GOP-appointed judges and grass-roots activists.

I have ranked these power centers in order of importance, at least in my view. But the precise order is less important than the general idea that the party’s radicalism is being reinforced at several different levels.

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1. Republican elected officials

It’s Republican politicians who pass deeply unpopular laws that roll back individual rights. They break with traditional democratic norms and values, including by spreading the election misinformation that helped lead to Jan 6. They demean institutions and people who try to act in nonpartisan ways, including the FBI, which was viciously attacked by some Republican politicians last week after its search of Trump’s house. And to insulate themselves from accountability from voters, GOP officials aggressively gerrymander legislative districts, particularly at the state level.

It’s not clear that there was a groundswell of Republican voters in early 2021 who had even heard of critical race theory, much less wanted to ban books written by numerous LGBTQ and Black authors from public schools and libraries. The results from a ballot initiative in Kansas this month suggest many Republican voters are wary of the near-total bans on abortion being adopted in red states. Likewise, many of these Republicans vote in favor of raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and limiting gerrymandering on ballot referendums, policies that GOP legislators won’t adopt even though they are common-sense and popular.

Wyoming voters chose to formally end Cheney’s tenure in Congress. But in reality, Republican Party officials had all but guaranteed that result by their actions over the last year. After the majority of House Republicans voted to disqualify some of the 2020 election results, and after all but 10 opposed Trump’s impeachment, any GOP official who said that Biden won the election and voted for impeachment was going to seem anti-Republican to party activists.

And GOP officials then took even more steps to make sure Wyoming voters got the message that Cheney was no longer a Republican in good standing. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) backed the effort to remove Cheney from her leadership post, and he joined with Trump and others to aggressively campaign against her reelection.

2. Superwealthy conservative donors

Wealthy conservatives are a huge reason the Republican Party has moved in an extreme direction. They pump millions into conservative policy groups such as the Federalist Society. They fund media and grass-roots organizations that move voters to the right. They create super PACs that help Trump-aligned conservatives win Republican primaries. And, just as importantly, they often don’t fund organizations or candidates who would move the party back to the center.

Charles Koch, who with his now-deceased brother David created a network of right-wing organizations that have pushed state-level GOP politicians to the right, is perhaps the conservative billionaire most responsible for the party’s turn to extremism. But that title could also go to Rupert Murdoch, who founded Fox News and has allowed it to become a haven for anti-Black and anti-Latino sentiments.

3. GOP-appointed judges

Conservative judges, including those on the Supreme Court, usually aren’t executing the most extreme parts of the GOP’s agenda. But through their rulings, these judges enable and at times even encourage it. The aggressive gerrymanders and voter suppression laws adopted by GOP-controlled states over the past decade never would have happened if the Supreme Court had struck down a few of them. They set off a wave of aggressive antiabortion laws by overruling Roe v. Wade.

4. Republican activists and organizations

Republican elected officials don’t come up with their extreme rhetoric and ideas totally on their own. Conservative activists and organizations often write radical proposals and then demand party officials pass them into law. For example, the leading figure in the party pushing for limits on how racism is taught in public schools is Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

In Cheney’s case, the Wyoming Republican Party central committee, made up of party activists, censured her in February 2021, only weeks after she voted for Trump’s impeachment. Cheney wasn’t alone: Many of the congressional Republicans who voted either for Trump’s impeachment or his conviction were quickly censured by local and state Republicans. Those censures sent a clear message to the rest of the party: Activist Republican types whose support GOP officials need to stay in office were standing firmly behind Trump — and would disavow anyone who did not.

5. Republican voters

I don’t want to understate the role of Republican voters in moving the party toward radicalism. Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and other extremist Republicans would not have power without voters backing them in primaries and general elections. In Wyoming, Republican primary voters could have ignored the views of Trump and other Republican leaders and reelected Cheney, who remains very conservative on most policy issues.

In polls, the clear majority of Republican voters say that Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election, meaning that they either believe the “big lie” or simply aren’t willing to accept that their candidate lost. Despite Jan. 6 and all of the other terrible things he did while in office, and since leaving, Trump is the leading candidate when Republican voters are asked about a potential 2024 primary — numbers that no doubt are part of the reason he might run for president again.

And the Republican voters who oppose Trump-style politicians and back ones such as Cheney in primaries aren’t blameless either. These voters tend to back Trumpian candidates in the general election. Trump himself won more than 90 percent of self-identified Republicans in 2016 and 2020, meaning nearly all of those who opposed him in the 2016 primary eventually fell in line. The Wyoming Republicans who backed Cheney in this week’s primary probably won’t support Democratic candidate Lynnette Grey Bull in the general election.

Trump-skeptical Republican voters, in my interviews with them, tend to be very tied to their identity as Republicans. They are largely unwilling to vote for any Democrat. And they are very open to arguments that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other figures on the left are just as dangerous as Trump-style Republicans, which frees them to vote for candidates such as Greene.

The big problem is that these five groups create a kind of feedback loop: GOP voters initially chose Trump; party donors, activists, judges and elected officials started embracing Trump-style politics and elevating Trumpian figures; now, the Trumpian figure in a given GOP primary is often also the person who has been on Fox News and raised the most money, so the voters are very likely to choose her. And that person will then move the party further right. It’s not an accident that the Trump presidency produced someone such as Greene.

Because these five groups are reinforcing one another, I see no easy or clear path for the Republican Party to shift toward a George W. Bush-style conservatism (one that embraces multiculturalism and respects core democratic values) anytime soon. As someone who started his political journalism career in 2002, I never expected Republicans to deem someone whose last name is Cheney insufficiently conservative. But that’s today’s Grand Old Party.