Gonzalez, one of the few House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump after the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, announced Thursday evening that he would not seek reelection next year. His announcement focused on his family; he has two young children and said he wanted to be able to devote more time to them. But he was clear that strife within his other family, the Republican Party, also played a significant role in the move.
“While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision,” he wrote, “it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party, is a significant factor in my decision.”
Speaking to the New York Times, he was more direct, describing a moment when he was greeted with security upon his arrival at an airport, a reminder that his vote on impeachment had spurred an enormous amount of anger from a small but clamorous group of Trump devotees. In that interview, he described Trump as “a cancer for the country,” making clear what he saw as the origin of those “toxic dynamics.”
An infuriated Trump had dedicated himself to making people like Gonzalez miserable for their impeachment votes, with success. One of Trump’s first post-presidential rallies took place in Gonzalez’s northeast Ohio district, where he appeared with a former staffer who was running to oust Gonzalez in the primary. He decried Gonzalez as a “fake Republican” — a claim based on nothing more than the fact that the congressman believed that Trump deserved to be held accountable for misleading his supporters about the election and encouraging them to come to D.C. on Jan. 6. In a statement Friday morning, Trump kicked Gonzalez on his way out the door.
Gonzalez “decided to quit after enduring a tremendous loss of popularity, of which he had little,” Trump wrote, “since his ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the sitting President of the United States, me.”
That “me” is so heavy. It’s the point of all this, the fury against Gonzalez and his rejoinder about toxicity. Trump demands that the party that carried him to the White House in 2016 continue to shed anyone who isn’t immediately deferential, a years-long process that has eroded the non-Trump-centric part of the GOP. For many Republicans, that’s just fine. But it’s also a reflection of a dynamic familiar in other contexts: the loud, angry center of attention that demands and receives loyalty, and the increasing difficulty that quieter voices have in speaking against it.
This week, CNN and its polling partner SSRS released results providing a good look at how Republicans view Trump and the party. What’s remarkable is the extent to which the former president isn’t always the center of attention.
For example, about 7 in 10 Republicans think Trump should be the leader of the party — which means that 3 in 10 don’t. More interesting, the poll also found that only about half of Republicans think their best bet in 2024 is to have Trump as their presidential nominee, something that Trump has been pretty clearly telegraphing as a desired outcome.
What’s more, Republicans are more likely to identify things such as “having conservative values” and “supporting congressional Republicans” as more important to being a Republican than supporting Trump or insisting on the false claim that he won last year’s election. Again, the fact that 7 in 10 Republicans think that last falsehood is important to the party’s identity is worrisome, given what it says about the GOP’s embrace of dishonesty in service of power. But it’s still less of a motivation for Republicans than, say, reducing the power of government.
There’s been a lot of polling since January trying to gauge how solid Trump’s grip on the party is. It’s probably an existential question for the GOP, if not American democracy itself. But even those polls, such as the one by CNN, that depict some space for a counterweight to Trump do not capture two challenges to that possibility: the lack of prominent voices who might serve as that counterweight (as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explored this spring) and the fact that Trump and his base work so ferociously to prevent any such voices from being heard.
Part of the challenge lies in the fact that more-conservative Republicans are more energized and more likely to participate in party primaries, as data from the 2016 American National Election Studies shows. As I’ve written, the fact that right-wing media focuses on appealing to the most engaged segment of the party, which also happens to be the most conservative, and that elected officials keep an eye on possible primary challenges helps skew the attention and focus to the right. And that benefits Trump.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine what a successful Republican opponent of Trump looks like. Is it someone such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, pivoting loyalty to Trump into an effort to pull away his base? Is it a forceful opponent who manages to neutralize the arrows from Trump and his base, giving voice and power to the small, Trump-skeptical part of the party? Is it just time, withering away Trump’s influence as attention turns elsewhere?
One thing it will not be is a former college football star turned politician who is willing to buck his party on a matter of grave historical importance. However the Republican Party moves forward, it will not be with Gonzalez as an elected official within it. Trump’s been very effective at making his opponents fight a huge mob without any support, and even for someone with Gonzalez’s background, taking on that fight at the expense of himself and his children was simply not worth it.