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Opinion The GOP prepares to tear itself apart

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and then-President Donald Trump attend a rally in Bakersfield, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2020. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The Republican Party has not had a moment’s rest since Donald Trump descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015. And it might be about to enter its most tumultuous period in a long time.

In the wake of their surprisingly poor showing in the midterm elections, and with the former president apparently set to announce his 2024 bid for the White House, Republicans are preparing for a period of brutal intramural conflict. Suddenly, the party that remade itself in Trump’s image isn’t sure it likes what it sees in the mirror.

Or at least, some of them believe voters aren’t buying it. The GOP is chock-full of people who lined up behind Trump in 2016 not out of conviction but because they felt they had no alternative. His support among their constituents was undeniable, and he brought with him an intolerance for disloyalty and a petty vindictiveness. His win validated their decision, whatever moral compromise it entailed.

Yet each successive loss (the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential race and now 2022) has made it harder for them to believe that Trumpism is the only way to win — and that they can survive saying so. Which is why even some politicians considered Trumpy are now openly opposing him. Take Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, who touted her support for Trump and put up posters of herself holding a military-style rifle when she ran in 2021. Two days after the midterms, she went on Fox Business to say she couldn’t support him in 2024. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, house organ of the conservative overclass, wrote an editorial titled “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”

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It isn’t just Trump being questioned. A group of influential conservatives released an open letter calling on the party to delay its congressional leadership elections scheduled for this week. It’s less than clear what they’re after, but Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are both fending off doubts about their leadership.

One of the notable features of all this conflict is how disorganized it is. Some people have a beef with McCarthy or McConnell. Some are upset with Trump. Some want to put all their election denialism behind them. And many are just angling for their own advantage. Unlike in previous moments of tumult, it’s hard to draw a clear line between the establishment and the insurgents.

That’s partly because the person who still leads the party — Trump — always presented himself as a scourge of the old guard. Trump loyalists, no matter how high their position, fancy themselves rebels, iconoclasts or brave opponents of the stodgy and self-satisfied.

The truth is that Republicans always enjoyed a little rebellion, so long as it was contained. Even George W. Bush, son of a president and grandson of a senator, sold himself as “a different kind of Republican” — an outsider who could whip the capital into shape. In his 2000 convention speech he claimed to “lack the polish of Washington,” as though he were a dust-covered cowboy riding into town to give them varmints the what-for.

That was the kind of tame anti-establishment pose the party’s elite was comfortable with. But over the years, it became clear that many Republican voters really did regard the party’s leadership as a bunch of phonies and sellouts. It’s what the leadership struggled with all through the Obama years, and in 2016, Trump rode that discontent to the party’s nomination and then to the White House.

At the moment, it’s far less clear just what Republicans are fighting about. It certainly isn’t substantive issues; the party remains remarkably unified on policy, partly because outside of tax cuts and immigration, they don’t care much about policy at all. Instead, policy debates are increasingly about how radical Republicans should be to achieve their goals.

What is clear is that they now have a leader around whom all their political problems revolve. So some Republicans rush to Trump’s side while conservative commentators call the midterms “a blinking, blaring, screaming sign that reads ‘Republicans: Trump is your problem.’ ”

Trump himself will not stand by and watch, and that’s what will raise the stakes, and the intensity, of this iteration of the long-running intraparty debate. Trump has always believed that conflict and chaos work to his advantage, and he’ll demand that Republicans be maximally combative — even when doing so courts disaster for his party or the country. He could insist that they impeach President Biden, shut down the government, refuse to raise the debt ceiling and throw the United States into default. And who will stand up to him?

Some Republicans will, but which ones do and don’t matters a great deal. Will McCarthy and the extremists in his caucus force a debt ceiling crisis at Trump’s behest? If they think it serves the end of getting him back in the White House, there might be few limits to how far they’ll go, no matter who in their party objects. The more “responsible” Republicans oppose them, the more convinced Trump and his allies will be that they’re right.

One thing is for certain: This conflict will not be easily resolved. It will likely consume the Republican Party all the way to November 2024, and probably beyond. And we all may suffer the consequences.

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