Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), leader of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, declared, “the Republican civil war is canceled.”
“We’ve got to resist the attempts of the oligarchy to divide us,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), adding: “You can see what their strategy is.”
Asked whether there was currently a GOP civil war, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said flatly, “No.”
And former president Donald Trump used his CPAC speech Sunday to assure, “The Republican Party is united. … I think we have tremendous unity.”
Even as Trump was saying this, though — actually in that ellipsis between the two comments about unity — Trump decried “a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment, political hacks” in the party. A couple moments before, he named 17 Republicans who supported his impeachment and called for the party to “get rid of them all.” When he brought up McConnell moments later, a cacophony of boos rained down on the ballroom in Orlando.
If Republicans truly aren’t divided, they sure have a funny way of showing it. Perhaps “civil war” isn’t an apt label for a conflict that seems to be rather one-sided as of now, with most of the party sticking by Trump. But it’s not so one-sided that Republicans don’t transparently fear what it could become in the months and years to come. That’s thanks in no small part to Trump’s knack for fomenting — and often his desire to leverage — those internal divisions.
This has led to a series of historic breaks in the GOP of late. To wit:
- State and local Republican parties have censured or rebuked many of the members who voted against him during his impeachment or validated their states’ election results. They include Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and two members from Washington state.
- Cheney was targeted for removal as the No. 3 party leader, and last week made a remarkable break with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) over Trump’s future role in the party — while standing right next to him.
- Despite standing by Trump, McCarthy and McConnell — both of the party’s top leaders in Congress — each said Trump bore responsibility for the Capitol siege.
- Both votes on Trump’s impeachment — to impeach and to acquit — featured record numbers of members of his own party voting against him.
- Top Republicans continue to give very conflicting signals about the legitimacy of Trump’s 2020 election loss, with some continuing to push baseless claims while others say Biden won fair and square and that the party should move on.
- Trump recently went so far as to consider forming a third party called the “Patriot Party” or “MAGA Party.” (He denied this as “fake news” on Sunday, but he declined to deny it in real time. And he has publicly used such threats as leverage over the GOP on several occasions, dating back to the 2016 campaign.)
- While Trump retains the loyalty of most Republicans, as much as a quarter of the party says it wants him to leave politics entirely, according to polls.
Basically any of these events, in isolation, would represent a pretty historic internal divide in a party. (Party leaders at odds in a very public way. The attempted excommunication of numerous alleged heretics. Leaders blaming their own party’s president for an attack on democracy. That same former president considering going to a third party, which hasn’t happened since 1912.) The combination of them shows this all-is-well talk is really wishful thinking — trying to create a reality by repeatedly insisting it exists.
“Civil war” might indeed be too strong a term given how few seem to have the desire to actually fight the intraparty juggernaut that is Trumpism and how badly outnumbered they are. Predictions of the GOP’s imminent demise are also overwrought, given how truly close they came to winning the presidency, the House and the Senate.
But that doesn’t mean the party doesn’t face huge decisions about what it is and what it wants to be moving forward — and that there isn’t huge dissension on those points. There is little doubt that it goes much deeper than the 17 Republicans who Trump named and the other Republicans who rebuked his election challenges. It’s just that most of the party recognizes how outflanked they are, not necessarily so much among their colleagues but in the broader GOP.
Many, arguably up to and including McCarthy and McConnell, have also previewed a bigger attempted break with Trump, only to later fall in line. (McConnell, in the interview above, even said without hesitation that he would back Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024, despite having two weeks ago said that Trump’s Jan. 6 conduct amounted to “a disgraceful dereliction of duty.”) And the House’s No. 3 Republican and McConnell both becoming pariahs at CPAC this weekend doesn’t exactly speak to a united party.
The fact that this has become a talking point in the party also reinforces just how real the prospect of a more long-lasting split might become — so real that it must be combated repeatedly.
In another illustrative moment at CPAC, American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp premised a question by decrying how “the press likes to say Republicans are fractured.” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) granted the premise, but then proceeded to decry the Republicans who wanted to “erase” Trump from the party.
“Let me tell you: If that happens, we won’t win back the majority in 2022,” Banks said. “We definitely won’t win back the White House in 2024 if we erase Donald Trump.”
Donald Trump Jr. said in his own speech: “If there’s one thing the Republican Party has been really good at over the last few decades, it’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. … Lincoln Project Liz, as I like to call her, is the leader of that failed movement. And if we want to go back to losing, if we want to go back to an America-last policy, we should be following that. But I don’t. And I don’t think anyone in this room does either.”
Those are some pretty full-throated warnings about something so many leaders assured was just some bogus media construct.