Two lost Georgia Senate seats and one armed MAGA attack on the Capitol later, that mood has darkened. Now conservatives are openly saying that the only way the GOP can win is through less democracy. Ben Shapiro rails against, you know, people voting. In an open letter to members opposing the Jan. 6 efforts to overturn the election results, seven GOP members of Congress acknowledged something extraordinary:
From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes — based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election — we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.
The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher sums up the current GOP quandary: “Some party leaders fret that as of now, they cannot win with Mr. Trump, and they cannot win without him. Right-wing voters have signaled that they will abandon the party if it turns on Mr. Trump, and more traditional Republicans will sour if it sticks by him.”
What is the GOP to do? In some ways we are seeing an emergent strategy. A significant fraction of Trump supporters are comfortable transforming the GOP into an American Hezbollah — a political party that also has an armed wing to coerce other political actors through violence.
If you think that this is an exaggeration, let’s consider what we have learned over the past week. “New leaders of the Capitol Police told House Democrats they were closely monitoring three separate plans that could pose serious threats to members of Congress as Washington prepares for Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20,” according to HuffPost’s Matt Fuller: “The first is a demonstration billed as the ‘largest armed protest ever to take place on American soil.’ ”
The New York Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Helene Cooper offer similarly ominous news in their story: “Sixteen groups — some of them armed and most of them hard-line supporters of President Trump — have registered to stage protests in Washington … The F.B.I. has notified local law enforcement of the potential for armed protests in all 50 state capitals, organized and promoted by far-right extremist groups.”
The increased visibility of violent and armed Trump supporters has rattled members of Congress. Politico’s Sarah Ferris, Kyle Cheney, and Melanie Zanona report that, “rank-and-file members of both parties privately worry that the security concerns that plagued the Capitol last week could pose additional threats to lawmakers targeted by aggrieved Trump supporters.”
Politico anonymously quoted a GOP lawmaker who explained: “There’s a difference in our crazy people and their crazy people. Our crazy people have an excessive amount of arms. They have gun safes. They have grenades. They believe in the Second Amendment. They come here, and Trump’s made them think this is the Alamo.”
The threat of violence also affected how some Republicans voted on Jan. 6. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) told Reason’s Matt Welch about some of his colleagues: “They knew in their heart of hearts that they should’ve voted to certify, but some had legitimate concerns about the safety of their families. They felt that that vote would put their families in danger.”
Are these “armed protesters” merely a radical fringe of the GOP? Only if you think the president of the United States is also on that fringe. They are doing exactly what Trump asked them to do in his Ellipse speech: Be more extreme. “Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. It’s like a boxer. And we want to be so nice. We want to be so respectful of everybody, including bad people. And we’re going to have to fight much harder.” On Tuesday he implicitly threatened violence yet again.
It is not just Trump. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim and Aida Chavez reported that the head of the House Freedom Caucus helped organize last week’s event. Madison Cawthorn spoke at the rally, saying: “Call your congressman. You can lightly threaten them and say, if you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you.”
And then there’s Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, who just lays it out there:
In “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” Albert Hirschman postulated how actors can respond to situations of decline in their larger organization. They can choose exercising their voice to alter the larger group’s strategy. Another option is exiting altogether and establishing a new group. In theory, exit and voice can be mutually supporting strategies of leverage. Hirschman warned, however, that keeping the exit alternative alive can “atrophy” the use of voice.
Think of the GOP right now as the actor and American democracy as the larger group. For 170 years, the Republican Party has exercised political voice to attain political power. In 2021, too many of its members and leaders are acting as though the only way Republicans can win power is through an exit to violence. The more they lean on the exit option, the less viable their voice becomes, and the more likely they will eventually exit.
Over the weekend my colleague Henry Farrell warned that, “democracy and armed factionalism are far closer than we think, or we would like them to be. This means that it is incredibly important to police the boundaries between them.”
A strong majority of GOP elites do not think Joe Biden’s victory was illegitimate, but a solid minority do believe it. That minority seems inclined to turn to violence as a solution. The majority within the GOP has a choice to make: They can discipline their own insurrectionists, or they can go the way of Hezbollah and become a violent nonstate actor.
On Tuesday afternoon the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) might have had their fill. McConnell reportedly believes that Trump “committed impeachable offenses” and also indicated that “he is pleased that Democrats are moving to impeach him, believing that it will make it easier to purge him from the party.” McCarthy has reportedly asked his caucus whether he should call on Trump to resign.
This is a good sign that McConnell and McCarthy prefer voice to exit — because if Republicans choose the latter option, then Americans will have to read up on the history of Lebanon’s civil strife.