For a moment following the attack on the Capitol Building, a sense of recognition seemed to wash over the Republican Party in Congress. The GOP’s association with Donald Trump—the electoral advantages of which were already dubious—threatened to become an indelible stain on the party. It was time to make a clean break. That would be a painful process, sure, but the seismic events that precipitated it more than justify such a drastic measure. But then, that seemed very difficult and not much fun. And as the shock of January 6 faded, so, too, did the GOP’s resolve.
The Republican Party’s rationalizations came easily enough. Yes, Donald Trump presided over the loss of the White House and both chambers of Congress in the space of four short years, but the GOP has found itself in deeper holes before. Outright internecine conflict with Trump’s loyalists would incur the wrath of the party’s base voters, and that could have adverse electoral consequences. It would be far easier to retreat to proven and preferred tactics: Defuse tensions between the party’s radical and governing wings behind closed doors; work behind the scenes to strengthen incumbents and undermine insurgents; and wield the levers of power in Washington to impose moderation on the GOP’s new vanguard.
The Republican Party is not interested in civil war. But as Donald Trump’s speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend suggests, the civil war is very much interested in the party.
In a 90-minute stemwinder, the former president largely stuck to a policy-heavy script that seemed to bore both the audience and the orator equally. His digressions about immigration and trade policy, economic deregulation, and law and order did little to rouse the crowd. Trump’s attacks on Joe Biden’s nascent administration also fell flat. His criticisms of the domineering and supercilious public health bureaucracy were better received, but only insofar as they represented salvos in the culture wars his supporters so love to prosecute. The core of Trump’s movement was never more energized than it is by the sense that they are the victims of a condescending cultural elite, which is perhaps why the president drew the most emphatic support from the audience at CPAC when he took aim at disloyal elements within his own party.
“We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans,” Trump said, “than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media, and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country.” The former president’s decision to define Republicans loyal to him as “fellow Americans” and all others as something else became even more glaring when he launched into a specific assault on those congressional GOP member who turned against him.
Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, and Pat Toomey. The crowd hissed and jeered as the traitors’ names were read aloud.
Tom Rice, Adam Kinzinger, Dan Newhouse, Anthony Gonzalez, Fred Upton, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Peter Meijer, John Katko, David Valadao, and the “warmonger” Liz Cheney. The crowd roared—louder now—echoing Trump’s demand for vengeance. “Get rid of her in the next election,” the former president said of Cheney. “Get rid of them all.”
That’s not an inconceivable outcome. If not in a primary, then in a general election. Six of the ten House Republicans who voted to convict Donald Trump of incitement to insurrection won their election to the House in 2020 by less than 60 percent of the vote. Of the seven Republican senators who broke with Trump, two are retiring, and one—Murkowski—will face voters in 2022. There are plenty of opportunities for the Trumpified GOP to exact its revenge, and Donald Trump plans to lead the way. He told his fans that he would spend the next year “actively working to elect” the sort of Republican lawmakers who reflect his sensibilities. “The RINOs that we’re surrounded with will destroy the Republican Party and the American worker and will destroy our country itself,” the former president declared.
And when he’s not engineering primary campaigns designed to dilute the power of the party’s governing wing, Trump will be doing what he did ahead of Georgia’s special elections: convincing a small but consequential band of his supporters that voting is for suckers.
In his speech, Trump could not help but retreat to the grab bag of post-2020 grievances. “Democrats used the China Virus as an excuse to change all the election rules,” which “easily changed the outcome of the election.” Beyond that, “illegal aliens and dead people” voted in the last election and will continue to do so in outcome-altering numbers. States like Pennsylvania produced “hundreds of thousands of more votes” than they have registered voters. The crowd ate it all up, but nothing brought the house down like the president’s decision to reprise the war cry that sparked the events of January 6: “This election was rigged.”
The applause dragged on for over a minute, only to be followed by a derisive chant: “We won,” the crowd insisted. “We won.” The 45th president sat back and absorbed the reaffirmation of his favorite narrative. “Thank you,” he finally said.
Trump’s speech was a threat. He promised to wage war on any Republican who fails to mimic his irascible style. He pledged to preserve the conditions that repulsed the suburban voters who abandoned the party in 2018 but who limited the damage done to almost every Republican lawmaker not named “Donald Trump” last November. And he revived his baseless claims of election fraud that had the effect of depressing Republican turnout in Georgia’s reddest districts. If Republicans weren’t “tired of winning” already, Trump has promised that they soon will be.
But the GOP is exhausted with the Trump phenomenon. They would love for the former president to fade into the scenery so they can go about the work of presenting a unified opposition to Joe Biden and make a case against his administration in 2022. Donald Trump is determined to make that as hard as possible.
The former president is right about one thing: If Republicans don’t fight, they will lose.