The Republican Party is struggling to reconcile a contest between the compelling power of an idea against the irresistible force of a personality. The idea is that the 2022 elections communicated as clearly as possible the degree to which Trump-aligned candidates are utterly unpalatable to voters. If you lent credence to the notion that Trump was denied the presidency in 2020 due to fraud or if, God help you, you promised to do something about it, you probably lost. Republican candidates with a credible claim to conventionality fared far better. That conflicts with the transformation of the party under Trump. Painful memories persist—memories of the punishment meted out against the former president’s foes—2022’s elections notwithstanding. This is a contest for power, and power is won by those who seize it.
Say what you will about Donald Trump, but the man understands how to secure power. He has a kind of horse sense about his relative standing. As the scale of the debacle over which Republicans presided comes into sharper focus, it has thrown into sharp relief the looming shadow he casts over the GOP. Trump and the forces loyal to him know their primacy within the Republican coalition is as vulnerable now as it has ever been, and they’re acting fast to secure their flanks before an alternative to Trump’s dominance emerges.
The conflict over the coming shape of the party has emerged in a fight over the GOP’s congressional leadership heading into the next Congress. In the House, the GOP’s narrow majority—if a majority materializes at all—limits the options available to Republicans who want to move on from the Trump era. And the party’s pro-Trump forces know it.
Trump ally Jason Miller expressly warned aspiring Speaker Kevin McCarthy that “he must be much more declarative that he supports President Trump” if he wants the gavel. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking Republican in the lower chamber, has already endorsed “the most popular Republican in America” ahead of 2024, and McCarthy (who has already won Trump’s conditional backing for the post he seeks) has been compelled to turn to his conference’s most reliably mutinous elements to secure his post. The bona fides of those potential new leaders within the House GOP are still determined by the degree to which they make plain their absolute fealty to Trump.
If there is a less Trumpy alternative to the populist affectation within the Republican conference in the House that so repulsed the 2022 electorate, it has yet to emerge. If it does, it may be too late to prevent the flight of Republicans back into the former president’s fold.
A similar but less menacing dynamic has emerged inside the GOP’s Senate minority. What was clearly a long-planned palace coup against Mitch McConnell’s leadership by insurgent pro-Trump forces commenced even despite the loss of those forces (as evinced by losing Arizona candidate Blake Masters’ bluster, from a position of abject weakness, about the rise of Republican nationalism). Humiliation at the ballot box hasn’t imposed humility on those nationalist Republicans who possess a Marxian view of their historic inevitability.
“One lesson from this week is that the establishment has failed the conservative movement — yet again,” wrote Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts. His organization is set to publish an open letter this week signed by the chiefs of organizations such as Freedom Works and CPAC and by odious figures like the disgraced Rep. Steve King calling on Senate Republicans to delay leadership elections. GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham, and Marco Rubio, agree. Against this backdrop, a fratricidal conflict between McConnell and one of his rivals, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, has spilled out into the streets.
There appears to be little appetite within Senate GOP leadership to delay a leadership vote ahead of December’s runoff election in Georgia, the outcome of which will have no effect on the control of that chamber. The elected officials and Republican powerbrokers who are sticking their necks out in defiance of McConnell don’t seem likely to succeed. But neither do they appear to expect any adverse consequences for challenging a figure who suffices as an all-purpose scapegoat for MAGA’s failures.
The big idea—the absolute existential imperative of shifting the Republican Party back in the direction of rationality—is self-evident. But the GOP hasn’t been a party of ideas for some time. The Republicans who are convinced by this idea are disoriented and disorganized. Their counterparts, by contrast, recognize their peril, and they are busily securing the commanding heights of authority within the party ahead of the insurrection they anticipate.
For politicians, elections are the primary feedback mechanism. Every faction of the Republican Party got the message that voters were sending this cycle, and they’re acting in ways that maximize their advantages. Pro-Trump forces inside the Republican firmament have opted to aggressively arrest the party’s entropic drift away from the millstone to which it attached itself in 2016. By contrast, those who envision a different future for the party haven’t even strapped on their shoes. By the time they do, it may already be too late.