Eric Davis: Is the GOP teetering on the brink?
Could President Trump’s rage-tweets against Republican governors and secretaries of state who have certified a Biden victory mark the beginning of a break-up of the Republican Party into pro-Trump and mainstream conservative factions?
The Republican and Democratic parties have contested American presidential elections since 1856. While the current two parties both have long histories, the structure of the American political party system did undergo several changes in the first half of the 19th century.
The Federalist Party withered away in the 1810s. The party that in some ways replaced the Federalists, the Whigs, in turn broke up in the 1850s over the issue of slavery. Anti-slavery Whigs formed the core of the new Republican Party. Over the preceding decades, the Democratic Party, under the leadership of Andrew Jackson and his successors, had become increasingly dependent on the votes of Southerners and slaveholders.
During the years leading up to the Civil War, there were well-known members of Congress and state political leaders on all sides of the newly forming political alignment. This was a very different situation from that in the Republican Party today. In order to form a new political party, there have to be elected officials ready to organize and lead the new group.
Only a handful of today’s Republican elected officials have regularly spoken out against Trump’s attempt to convert the GOP into a cult of personality. Far more elected Republicans, especially in Congress, are afraid of being called out by Trump, regardless of whether his words and actions violate legal forms and democratic norms.
Only four Republican senators — Romney of Utah, Collins of Maine, Murkowski of Alaska, and Sasse of Nebraska — have been consistently unwilling to follow the Trump party line. Only three Republican governors are in this group — Scott of Vermont, Baker of Massachusetts, and Hogan of Maryland.
Other than Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, almost no House Republicans — 126 of whose members signed a brief in support of Trump’s and Texas’ attempt to overturn the election results in the Supreme Court — have publicly repudiated Trumpism.
There are not enough elected Republicans to form the core of an anti-Trump faction. Such a group does not have a realistic chance of winning congressional seats beyond those members mentioned above, in large part because the Republican primary electorate is now dominated by strong supporters of Trump.
The composition of the primary electorate also makes it most unlikely that a Republican presidential candidate in the mold of Ronald Reagan or the Bushes could win the GOP nomination. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has indicated that he may run for the 2024 nomination as such a candidate, but he would face considerable difficulty winning any delegate votes outside his home state and a few other states in the Northeast.
Trump is already flirting with the idea of running for president again in 2024. This would be a way of maintaining attention on himself, raising enough money to keep his political operation intact, and freezing the field of Republican candidates for the next cycle.
Whether or not Trump actually goes through with a third presidential campaign is another matter. In the shorter term, he might support 2022 primary challenges to Republican governors such as Brian Kemp in Georgia and Doug Ducey in Arizona, who certified slates of electoral votes for Biden.
To me, the most serious question about the future of the Republican Party is whether, at the national level, there is a critical mass in the GOP willing to accept the fundamental principle of democracy — that the results of free and fair elections determine those who hold public office.
Trump has shown, over the past month, that he does not accept that principle. Will Trump’s legacy end up being to have made over the Republicans into an illiberal party relying on voter suppression and gerrymandering, often motivated by racism, as the only way its candidates can win elections?
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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