The party’s deterioration has been an ongoing story of the Trump presidency, but the damage done and the challenge of restoration have been underlined in the weeks since President-elect Joe Biden won the election with a comfortable electoral college majority and a decisive margin in the popular vote, amid no evidence of widespread fraud.
It was widely noted this past week when 10 Republicans joined House Democrats to support impeaching the president for a second time. Foremost among those dissenters from the party line was Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House and the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney. Her denunciation of the president’s role in inciting a mob attack on the Capitol was as devastating as it was succinct. Her words and vote were a marker put down for the future.
More significant for the party’s future than the 10 who voted to impeach was the fact that — in the face of an insurrection at the Capitol that resulted in the death of a police officer and four rioters, that threatened lives of lawmakers and their staffs and that came after Trump had whipped up a rally with rhetoric inveighing against weakness in trying to overturn the election — there were still 197 Republicans who voted not to impeach. However uncomfortable they were with Trump’s role in the mob action, as some expressed, they nonetheless marched in lockstep as they have for four years.
If that vote were not evidence enough of Trump’s hold on the party, what about the day the Capitol was ransacked? After the building had been secured and lawmakers had gone back to work on the night of Jan. 6, 147 Republicans in the House and Senate, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, still supported one or both of the objections to the electoral college counts in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
And if all that weren’t evidence enough of the party’s incapacity to break with Trump, what about the 126 Republicans who in December joined the Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the results of the election in four states after repeated efforts, legal and otherwise, to claim fraud had evaporated under scrutiny?
Did all those Republicans who opposed impeachment, supported the objections to the electoral college count and asked the Supreme Court to overturn the election believe what Trump said about a stolen election or believe that he is not responsible for inciting those who stormed the Capitol?
Some may have, but probably far from all. More likely is that for many this was one more example of how the bullying that has been part of Trump’s playbook has affected the behavior of elected officials. Trump has intimidated them, making examples of any who openly challenged or criticized him by threatening them with primary challenges or worse.
Republicans say they got something out of this bargain with the leader most never wanted as their nominee in 2016 — more conservative judges, big tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks. But the costs have been sizable: the loss of the House, the Senate and the White House, all of which can be laid at Trump’s feet. The path of least resistance that many Republicans have trod proved to have serious consequences. Party leaders, through silence but often also through verbal assent, allowed things to spiral downward.
Republicans are now two parties, the party of Trump and the party of Never Trump, and the lines are more clearly defined than ever. Republicans are conflicted, many recognizing the damage they know Trump has done while saying to themselves that they still managed to pick up seats in the House in November and could take it back in 2022. To say Republicans face a time of testing and introspection understates the period ahead.
First is the question of Trump’s future as the leader of the party. A conviction in the upcoming Senate trial could remove him as a potential candidate in 2024. Such a verdict remains doubtful unless Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky votes to convict and brings many senators with him. Were it to happen, that alone would be a relief to many Republicans, who would like Trump sidelined as a candidate as a step toward restoring regular order.
But elected officials can read the polls. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 85 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they oppose Trump’s removal from office. Sixty-six percent say there is solid evidence to support his claims of widespread fraud in the election. Forty-eight percent say GOP leaders did not go far enough in supporting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election; only 17 percent say those leaders went too far.
Next is what Republicans stand for. They abandoned any pretense of being anything other than a subsidiary of Trump Inc. when they chose not to adopt a platform at this year’s national convention. People scoff at party platforms as empty exercises that are forgotten as soon as they are adopted. Perhaps. Yet the platform process requires members of a party to debate and agree on the principles they share and on broad policies consistent with those principles. The GOP said last summer it would go wherever Trump wanted to go.
Who knows today what Republicans really stand for beyond lower taxes and less regulation? Where are they on health care after failed efforts to agree on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, or on debt and deficits after a presidency that added record levels to the national debt? Where is the party on immigration or climate change? Where are Republicans on confronting income and wealth inequality or racial injustice? Where are they on the U.S. role in the world, on the use of force, on human rights, on trade with other nations?
Trump has been a smothering presence. His departure, absent disqualification from holding higher office, will not mean the elimination of his voice within the party. Even disqualification might not quiet his influence. But there are opportunities. In the Post-ABC poll, 57 percent say they want Republican leaders to follow his lead rather than move in a different direction. While still a majority of the party, that is smaller than the 76 percent who said so three years ago.
Cheney’s decision to support impeachment showed her cards, looking to a Republican future with Trump as a greatly diminished force. Cheney’s conservative credentials are as solid as anyone else’s in her party, and the resolve she demonstrated in stepping forward suggests she is prepared to fight for a Republican Party that returns to many of its first principles. But her vote did not prove to be a tipping point, and she could face ouster as chair of the Republican Conference.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who voted for one article of impeachment against Trump last year and spoke eloquently against those objecting to the electoral vote count, has been a powerful voice within the conservative movement for an adherence to the party’s principles while opposing the worst of what Trump has represented. But by bringing clarity and resolve to the damage of the Trump presidency, he has become a pariah to some in the party.
Republicans will need leadership to move them beyond Trump — and a willingness to face up to the damage Trump has done. Romney told his GOP colleagues that one necessary step must be to tell the truth to all those who believed the president’s lies. Reckoning with the white supremacist sentiment that Trump has allowed to spread across the country is also part of expunging the toxicity of what Trump brought to politics.
The restoration of the Republican Party could begin at noon Wednesday. The question is whether it will happen at all.