The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP fight now is the same fight it’s been for years: The establishment vs. the fringe

A demonstrator holding pro-Trump and QAnon flags in Washington on Dec. 12. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump responded as one might expect to Senate Republicans choosing sides on whether to object to the certification of his 2020 presidential loss.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime Trump ally who announced that he wouldn’t join the challenges, was the target of a vague primary threat in a tweet from the president: “Republicans have pluses & minuses, but one thing is sure, THEY NEVER FORGET!”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), an on-again, off-again Trump foe who organized a group willing to stand athwart the inevitable during the Jan. 6 certification, received a tweet of approval.

This isn’t what Cruz’s lawyerly statement actually said, nor is it what he said during the appearance on Fox News that apparently inspired the tweet. Instead, he touted the unprecedented allegations of fraud, most of which stem from Trump. But such nuances are secondary to both parties. Trump got to tout an ally in his fight and Cruz got Trump’s approval — even as he preserved the long-term deniability that his comments have been carefully intended to maintain.

It’s hard not to read this specific fight over the election results as being a sort of jury deliberation on Trump’s role within Republican politics. The tension between efforts by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to limit Senate objections to the presidential election results and by senators such as Cruz who are eager to appeal to Trump’s enthusiastic base has led to various examinations of where the power center of the party will land after Jan. 20.

But this is largely missing the forest for the trees. The story of the Republican Party for at least the past 12 years has been one of tension between a political establishment and a wild fringe. That tension has repeatedly spurred the establishment to try to appease or co-opt the fringe. But instead of folding into the party, the fringe keeps moving further out. That is the tension of the moment: How will a fringe empowered and reinforced by the Trump presidency coexist with a Republican Party eager to move back toward reality?

Consider how we got here.

Three things happened in 2008 that shocked the Republican system. The first was that the presidency of George W. Bush was increasingly seen as a failure, even by many Republicans. By early October of that year, his approval among members of his party was under 60 percent in Gallup polling, a staggeringly low figure by recent standards. That was in part due to the downturn that was still burning through the economy, a downturn that destabilized the sense of security of even the most financially stable Americans. Those two things contributed to the election of Barack Obama, a manifestation of another cultural change in the country: the decreasing dominance of Whites.

Before Obama won, though, he was the target of baseless allegations that he had not been born in the United States and, therefore, was ineligible to hold the office of president. This wasn’t true, but it was politically potent. The assertion wasn’t limited to conservative circles; during his hard-fought Democratic primary victory over Hillary Clinton, even some Democrats elevated the claims. But the claims were heavily centered on right-wing websites that were finding new audiences with the emergence of social media. Rumors that spread over email spread more slowly than ones dropped into Facebook and Twitter (as the founder of Snopes explained to The Washington Post in 2015). Write up a blog post claiming evidence of Obama’s ineligibility and tweet it out and suddenly you can propel the misinformation everywhere — and make a decent bit of cash from new visitors to your website.

As the 2008 election approached, it was clear that there was an enormous amount of energy to the political right of the GOP establishment, energy often concentrated in these theories. The party’s nominee, John McCain, made one of the first overt efforts to appease those voters, selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate largely on the strength of her credibility with those skeptical of the establishment. His candidacy was doomed, though, and Palin didn’t do much to help.

From nearly the moment Obama took office, he became a lightning rod for the conservative fringe. Part of it was situational: Inheriting the crumbled economy meant needing to make broad investments to bolster employers and workers. Obama was painted as a socialist for doing so, a charge that itself leveraged a sense from some on the right that he was an “other,” given his family background and life story.

The tea party movement, which emerged soon after Obama took office, was a manifestation of those overlapping concerns. Ostensibly centered on government spending (and centered on that concern by conservative activists), the movement was also intertwined with concerns about the declining power of White America and immigration.

Many Republican candidates recognized the value of appealing to the fervent base of tea party supporters and did so overtly. The movement introduced candidates of its own, often pulled from the mistier fringes of conservative thought. The establishment pushed back hard, working to undercut primary challenges from tea-party-spawned candidates. Sometimes it worked; often it didn’t. The energy among Republican voters for candidates espousing hard-line tea party positions propelled several to surprising primary wins — but then to general-election losses, as the establishment had feared.

That energy continued to be powered by conservative media. Fox News leaned into the tea party movement, being described by one research team as “a national advocacy organization actively fostering a social protest identity.” Further from the political center of the party were sites such as Breitbart, which not only generated enthusiasm for the movement but encouraged speculation about Obama’s ancestry.

Republican leaders tried to appease the tea partyers to leverage the energy. A number of policy concessions emerged. The party shifted to the right. But the enthusiasm for the tea party movement was driven heavily by opposition to Obama and a changing America, and the elevation of various policy issues as central concerns was often secondary. Put another way, there was no appeasing those for whom the fight itself was often the desired goal.

What’s often underrecognized about Trump’s emergence in national politics is that he was the best-known figure willing to fully immerse himself in those fights encouraged in far-right media. He flirted with a 2012 presidential run by leaning into birtherism, building a foothold with sketchier conservative media outlets by doing so.

His embrace of birtherism didn’t prevent an embrace from more-mainstream conservative outlets, though. He first publicly questioned Obama’s birthplace in March 2011; at the end of that month, Fox News announced that he would be contributing weekly to its morning flagship program, “Fox & Friends.” That gig lasted until he announced his presidential candidacy in June 2015.

Trump’s strategy wasn’t complicated. He watched Fox News and read sites such as Breitbart and reiterated the questions and concerns he saw there. When violence in Central America led to a surge of young immigrants at the border with Mexico, Trump echoed conservative media in seizing on immigration as an issue. When several people infected with Ebola traveled to the United States shortly before the 2014 midterm elections, Trump, like Fox News and Breitbart, obsessed over it.

When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, he was praised by supporters for his directness and honesty. What that meant, to a large degree, was that he was saying things that they were hearing on Fox News and in far-right media — things that other candidates wouldn’t say often because they were believed to be prohibitive when seeking elected office. Trump said Fox things to a Fox audience, and a chunk of the audience coalesced around him once his comments about immigration prompted enough of a cultural fight to break through the noise. This relatively small core was a lot in a crowded primary field, and Trump quickly emerged as the Republican front-runner.

After spending months thinking that Trump’s support would collapse and a desperate few weeks in early 2016 trying to ensure that it did, the Republican establishment was forced to work with Trump. Over the course of the 2016 campaign, though, there was a broad assumption that he would lose and the party would need to rebuild.

The establishment had come to a similar conclusion in 2012 when Mitt Romney lost, deciding that, among other things, it needed to expand its base to include more non-White voters, perhaps by moving away from a hard line on immigration. (Even Sean Hannity embraced the idea when the political winds blew in that direction.) But it didn’t need to make such a move to win in 2016. Instead, Trump’s candidacy reinforced cultural and racial politics far more openly than those of past Republicans, helping stoke the energy of Republican voters. Against an unpopular Democratic opponent that year, his fervent base proved to be large enough in enough states to win him the White House.

Again, that base was powered by far-right media and misinformation. An influential study from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society found that Breitbart was the most popular media outlet on the political right during the 18 months leading up to the presidential election. A few months before the election, Breitbart and the Trump campaign effectively merged, with the website’s chairman, Stephen K. Bannon — who had once described the site as “virulently anti-establishment” — becoming the chief executive of the campaign itself.

Once he became president, Trump and the party similarly merged. As with the tea party movement, Trump’s focus was never policy but, instead, fringe cultural fights. This suited the establishment fairly well: By letting Trump have his incendiary public persona, the GOP got hundreds of new conservative judges, three Supreme Court justices and a massive tax-cut package. It meant a lot of looking the other way at Trump’s behavior and broad refusals to call out dishonesty and controversial comments, but for much of his term, it worked on a political level.

As the 2020 election approached, this alliance held. Trump’s repeated attacks on the mail-in voting process and his refusals to say he would concede peacefully should he lose were met with shrugs. The 2018 elections were largely a rout for the Democrats thanks to Trump’s unpopularity and, clearly, because many 2016 Trump voters stayed home with him not on the ballot. But being close to Trump wasn’t itself necessarily disqualifying in that environment: Trump allies such as Ron DeSantis in Florida and Brian Kemp in Georgia won close gubernatorial races. So even as it seemed clear Trump would lose his reelection bid, most Republicans stuck with him.

Then he lost. Trump’s (predictable) refusal to acknowledge the loss was at first accepted as a cost of not alienating his base. The sentiment was infamously summarized by an official who spoke with The Post a few days after the loss was confirmed.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” the senior Republican said. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

This was the operating assumption for much of Trump’s presidency: Go along with his nonsense, get what you need where you can and, eventually, things will go back to normal. Some in the establishment saw Trump’s loss as a chance to step away from fringe politics, operating under an assumption that those politics are mostly associated with Trump himself.

They are not. The fringe has grown only more robust over the past four years, encouraged by Trump. He’s leveraged sycophantic entities such as One America News and Newsmax in an effort to pressure Fox News to move further toward the right, an effort that has borne some fruit. He’s refused to clamp down on bizarre conspiracy theories such as QAnon, even at times encouraging them. An expert who spoke with The Post in 2017 noted that Trump’s politics are rooted in baseless conspiracy theories, something reinforced by his approach to communications as president. His counternarrative to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election? A broad, baseless claim centered on the FBI. His rationalization for losing the election? A conspiracy among his opponents and state officials to prevent a win.

Since that Republican official shrugged at the harm of humoring Trump, Trump and the far right have only spiraled farther from the center of the galaxy, like a Voyager probe of nonsense. When Fox News had the gall to accurately report that Trump lost his reelection bid, Trump and his allies rejected the network. Fox News spent years building foot soldiers for the MAGA movement, but, in refusing to accede to his theories, it was quickly rejected by many Republicans.

Suffolk University has for years asked Americans what TV news or commentary source they trust most, offering options such as CNN, Fox News, PBS and MSNBC. Fox News consistently earned most-trusted marks simply by holding the majority of Republicans. But in the first Suffolk poll released after the election, Fox News is now running about even with “none of the above.”

Much of that shift, it is safe to assume, is a function of viewership having moved to One America or Newsmax, places where accuracy is often a secondary concern. Their rhetoric is centered on Trump at the moment, but it is also deeply opportunistic. Once the election fades as a subject of speculation, something else will fill the vacuum.

Ben Collins, an NBC News reporter who has focused on QAnon and other misinformation efforts, made an observation about conservative media in the post-election period.

“The QAnon rumor pipeline has completely eaten the far-right news ecosystem over the last two months,” he said in a tweet. He pointed to a debunked claim about voting machines as being little more than a “tendril” of the sprawling QAnon theory.

“And,” he added, “the president believes all of it.”

Probably. There’s certainly some opportunism at play for Trump. But the point is that the fringe keeps doing its thing in ways that are often only tangentially linked to Trump. There is some chunk of the Republican base that is now invested enough in this divergent soap opera to turn away from Fox News. QAnon has engaged hundreds of thousands of people in a LARP about government conspiracies, Satanism and child abuse. The fringe was always more invested in cultural fights than political ones, but, encouraged by Trump, those cultural fights are now much further from the GOP establishment than they were even four years ago.

This is the fight the GOP faces. It’s not really about whether Cruz’s ploy to use lawyer-speak to give Trump a thumbs up will play well in the 2024 primaries. It’s about how far from reality the base will get.

Maybe Trump’s inevitable withdrawal from the scene will reduce that distance somewhat. Maybe without Trump at the center, the One America and Newsmax audience will return to Fox. Maybe Fox will be able to broadly shift back from being pro-Trump to being anti-Democrat. But for the past 12 years, the movement has all been in the other direction, toward more extreme and wild assertions.

Yes, Trump lost. But multiple Republican candidates who encouraged QAnon — or adhered to it overtly — won and are now members of Congress. The GOP largely subsumed the tea party after 2010, contributing to the fringe becoming fringier. Can the party figure out how to do the same to the far-right fringe now? And if it does, what comes next?