Few moments better summarize the state of the Republican Party at the moment than the vote cast on the evening of Jan. 6 regarding the electoral votes Arizona submitted in the 2020 presidential election. A majority of House Republicans opted to reject those votes, despite the utter lack of credible evidence that anything suspect had happened in the state’s election.
But it was what the Republican base wanted, a base addled by dishonest claims about voter fraud from then-President Donald Trump and his boosters at conservative media outlets. The base viewed the election as having been stolen and wanted Republicans to reflect that belief, however untrue. And GOP members of Congress followed along.
They did so, in fact, only hours after the fallacy that the election was stolen had boiled over into a violent assault on the Capitol, one that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer. The rioters who posed for selfies on the Senate floor in the afternoon and the representatives who stood on the House floor hours later differed only in their motivation. The rioters were motivated by their deluded understanding of the U.S. political system; the members of Congress were motivated by a desire to appeal to the rioters and others who shared their assumptions about the election results.
This is the heart of the problem for the GOP at the moment. It’s not just that the party is riddled with people who accept wild conspiracy theories as true or even that most of the party’s base believes false claims about voter fraud. It’s that much of the base has, for comprehensible reasons, embraced the idea that they’re better served by fending for themselves than organizing under the umbrella of the party. The party’s response, like its response on Jan. 6, has mostly been to try to sell itself to the base where it is, not where it might be.
Consider the statement Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered on Monday evening, in which he wouldn’t even deign to dignify Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) by identifying her by name.
“Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” McConnell said in a statement, clearly referring to Greene. “Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality.”
The statement follows a blizzard of revelations about Greene’s views over the past few weeks, those above and others. It’s the political equivalent of a layup, rejecting wild and obviously untrue claims as bizarre and aberrant. But it’s a statement that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) hasn’t made. Greene is in McCarthy’s caucus, and his members are at least as mad at Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, for daring to vote to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 violence as they are at Greene for her embarrassing statements. Many Republican elected officials — not without justification — see more political value in punishing someone for standing up to Trump than in criticizing a peer who resides, like the former president, in a universe of dishonesty and imagination.
The chasm in the party between its base and its elected leaders in Washington can be traced back to the cracks that emerged about a decade ago. The recession that began at the end of George W. Bush’s administration introduced a sudden and shocking economic instability to much of the country, including older conservatives who suddenly saw retirement plans collapse or already shaky employment opportunities vanish. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 multiplied the sense of instability for many of the same people, accentuating the sense that the nation was changing in a way that disadvantaged or even explicitly targeted White Americans, particularly those with fewer economic opportunities.
The tea party movement that emerged over the next few years was driven by activists who sought to leverage grass-roots fury to enact conservative economic policy. But it also encouraged and leveraged three trends that are now central to the party’s problems.
The first was distrust in the Republican establishment itself. The tea party was heavily focused on challenging sitting members of Congress on the grounds that they were insufficiently adherent to conservative orthodoxy. The establishment fought off a number of primary challenges, but not all of them.
The second was the acceleration of an alternate informational universe. Decades of effort by the right to undermine the media had succeeded in diminishing reliance on mainstream news outlets, creating a space for conservative-focused outlets. The advent of online publishing and social media spurred a land rush to the far right, with diminished confidence in media leading to careers and outlets powered by offering the most extreme interpretations of events if not downright falsehoods.
The third was that Republicans began self-organizing. Local tea party groups coalesced and at times put forward candidates for office. Leveraging the Internet, the base began creating structures that were only adjacent to the party itself.
By 2015, all of this led to Trump. He was an avid consumer of right-wing media and echoed the rhetoric he heard there back to the public. While most establishment Republicans — a term that describes the majority of Trump’s primary opponents in 2016 — were reluctant to embrace the toxic and often false commentary that percolated in that universe, Trump seized on it, leading many in the base to view him as uniquely straightforward. He, too, objected to the establishment and, unlike someone like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, he could articulate both the racial and economic concerns that had pushed a lot of voters away from the party.
Trump fostered an us-vs.-them sentiment with his base, where “them” was broadly “the elites.” He gave his supporters a sense of belonging, a shared sense of oppression from those in positions of power and influence.
As he put it at a rally in December: “We’re all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They’re all victims. Every one of you.”
But even with his election, the evolution of the base wasn’t yet complete. Trump was untamed by the position, but he was unable — through a combination of ineptitude, indifference and a lack of political power — to overhaul the government as thoroughly as his base expected. He’d pledged to uproot Washington’s problems (“I alone can fix it”) but was unable to uproot some problems for the simple reason that they didn’t exist. So, by his second year in office, some of his supporters had shifted their attention to another savior: Q.
Q was, in theory, a government official who was willing to anonymously describe a secret war against pedophilia being conducted by the government and by Trump. There was no rational reason to believe that the person actually existed, much less that what he was describing was reality, but the appeal, in part, was precisely that it was so out there.
QAnon, the conspiracist universe that grew up around Q’s intentionally cryptic pronouncements (called “drops”), offered all of the elements that had been burbling on the right for more than a decade. It discouraged reliance on traditional media outlets, empowering followers by convincing them that they could do their own research and suss out the meaning of Q’s drops. It leveraged distrust of institutions. Deciphering the drops encouraged the formation of communities and groups. QAnon adherents used the Internet to organize into their own communities, ones in which their interest in Q wasn’t mocked or derided.
As CNN's Elle Reeve put it when we spoke shortly after the Jan. 6 riot, the robust QAnon presence at the Capitol was to some degree a function of that sense of community.
“Maybe the people in their real-life social circles don’t believe in what they believe in. And that’s frustrating to them,” Reeve said.
She described a QAnon group she’d been tracking that, in the days prior, had expressed excitement about traveling to D.C. : “What joy it was to finally meet each other and then, in turn, do something that they thought was good for the country.”
This is key. QAnon guidance offers self-reliance on information systems and gives an uncomplicated sense of order and optimism.
“I view it as hope,” an adherent named Connor whom I spoke with at a Trump rally in Pennsylvania in 2018 told me. “It’s like there’s a larger design. Despite all the chaos the country is going through, there is a backbone of what’s taking place behind the scenes.”
A year later, at another Trump rally in New Hampshire, John Lampiris put it similarly.
“It’s sometimes nice to believe in something that’s good,” he said. “Everybody that’s decent wants to believe that good always beats evil. That light always comes after darkness. So it can also be a positive thing for people, just to believe that there are good forces trying to battle bad forces.”
Others I spoke with at that rally indicated that they viewed themselves and others researching Q as something like independent journalists, refusing to accept the standard line offered by elite media outlets and leaders.
They also said that officials running the rally had asked them to remove Q shirts before entering.
In the same way that Trump represented the independent fringe of the party when he ran for president in 2015, Greene represents how that fringe has evolved. The conspiracy theories she embraces are not complicated or unique, nor is her general acceptance of the QAnon reality. She, like Trump, was incubated in a specific, delusion-heavy universe and brought that with her to Washington. She is a QAnon adherent in the most obvious sense that her approach to reality echoes the movement’s. Everyone saw her recent problems coming, including the House minority leader. But a party that had folded itself around Trump’s flavor of surreality was poorly positioned to reject Greene’s without an adamant rejection of something much of its base accepted.
This is the party’s core challenge. It won lower on the ticket in 2016 and 2020 in part because of voters Trump turned out, people who wanted to support this New York real estate mogul who stood up to the elites. The community he fostered included many people who didn’t usually vote, just as many in the crowd on Jan. 6 hadn’t. These were people who defined themselves in opposition to the establishment, so they weren’t reliable Republican voters.
So how do McCarthy and McConnell get them to turn out again? McConnell seems to be betting, at least over the short term, on a renewed (or at least partial) embrace of reality, hoping that Republicans who aren’t sympathetic to QAnon are getting spooked by the right wing’s drift into delusion. (Some Republicans dropped their party affiliation after the Capitol riot, although not a significant number.) McCarthy seems to be trying to find some sort of middle ground between reality and Greene-ville. He, too, voted to reject the Arizona electoral votes.
There are three paths forward. One is a party that leans into antiestablishmentarianism and hopes to somehow sit atop the bronco as it bucks. Another is a party that abandons the conspiracy theorists and potentially faces diminished political power. The third is a party whose leaders force reality onto the base, figuring out how to reclaim authority over conservative Americans and straightening out the media ecosystem that supports it.
One can see why the most-trafficked path to date is the first.