Is the Republican Reckoning Finally Here?

Some Republicans seem willing to think about a break with Trump - why now and will it last?

One of my ways for seeming “smart” over my many years in politics is to always predict that Republicans will do the wrong thing. Much like predicting the Buffalo Bills will be bad, it’s a bet that always pays off until it doesn’t.

My initial reaction when Democrats decided to proceed with impeachment was that this time would be no different. The vote in the House would be party line with a few defectors with no possibility of conviction in the Senate. In other words, the armed assault on the Capitol would barely alter the political dynamics of the last four years. Republicans would once again willfully ignore Trump’s dangerous demagoguery to stay in the good graces of the Republican base and Right Wing media.

Better very, very late than never, but it seems like — just maybe — this time might be a little different.

Are Republicans really doing the right thing? If so, why? And what does it say — if anything — about the future of the Republican Party?

A Break with Trump (of sorts)

Yesterday, ten House Republicans voted to impeach the President. While this number is a fraction of the Republican caucus, it represents a relatively dramatic break from Trump. Representative Liz Cheney (yes, one of those Cheneys), a member of Republican Leadership, voted to impeach and did not mince her words. When she announced her decision to support impeachment, she said:

The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.

The last time the President was impeached for an obvious and very high crime, a grand total of zero Republicans in the House upheld their oath of office. This time, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy opposed impeachment, but criticized Trump, floated a censure resolution, and didn’t whip his members to vote against the articles. This is nothing to write home about but it is a far cry from his days curating Starburst for Trump.

Even more significantly, Mitch McConnell, who did more to enable Trump and Trumpism than anyone in American politics not named Murdoch, appears to be done with Trump. According to reporting from the New York Times:

Senator Mitch McConnell has concluded that President Trump committed impeachable offenses and believes that Democrats’ move to impeach him will make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the party, according to people familiar with Mr. McConnell’s thinking.

Color me skeptical that there are 17 Republican votes — including and especially McConnell’s — to remove Trump from office. But it is very notable that McConnell let his feelings about Trump be known and that his office has refused to walk them back. My best guess is that the New York Times report was not the result of some aide speaking out of school. It has all the makings of a planned leak to send a message and float a trial balloon. There is nothing in his history that suggests he wants to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Political power is to McConnell what oxygen is to every other living being on the planet. McConnell, like most establishment Republicans, knew that Trump was a dangerous idiot. But he backed him because he thought it was good politics. If McConnell is considering casting Trump aside, it is based on an assessment of a changed political playing field.

Post-Trump Republican Politics

The Republicans who have stuck their necks out deserve some credit. However, before we go around handing out Profile in Courage awards, it’s worth mentioning that a small handful of Republicans are doing the bare fucking minimum. The following quote from Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski about Mike Pence could apply to nearly every Republican official in the country:

It’s kind of hard to call somebody courageous for choosing not to help overthrow our democratic system of government. He’s got to understand that the man he’s been working for and defending loyally is almost single-handedly responsible for creating a movement in this country that wants to hang Mike Pence.

Okay, with that cathartic rant out of the way, lets dig into what has changed politically that has pushed some Republicans to do something for the first time since Trump was elected.

First, Trump won’t be on the ballot in 2022 and he definitely won’t be on it ever again if he is convicted in the Senate. Republican subservience to Trump was part of a Faustian bargain — excuse his crimes and corruption in exchange for the turnout that Trump generated among the Republican base. While Kevin McCarthy reportedly had planned to use Trump on the stump in 2022, 2018 showed us that Trump’s ability to turn out his voters is diminished when he isn’t on the ballot. Republicans didn’t break with him before now, because they needed his voters. But now Trump simply has less to offer the Republicans in the future.

Second, the assault on the Capitol may have been a breaking point for Corporate America. Some of the country’s biggest and best known brands had been willing to fund racist, conspiracy-wielding provocateurs in exchange for lower taxes, less regulation, and the general freedom to pillage the planet for profit. A near party-wide attempt to upend democracy that incited a violent mob was a bridge too far for many companies. A number of major corporations including JP Morgan Chase, CitiGroup, American Express, and G.E. announced that they were suspending donations to the Republican members who voted to overturn the election. It’s safe to assume that the Republican campaign committees and SuperPACs are having trouble getting their calls returned. Of course, this newfound courage from corporate America when it comes to Republicans has A LOT to do with the fact that Democrats now control the White House, House, and Senate. The approach from McConnell and McCarthy is very much about giving these companies an onramp to reopening the spigot (just in time to elect a bunch of democracy-hating, future coup leaders in 2022).

Finally, Trump is at the nadir of his popularity. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found that only 34 percent of Americans approve of Trump, while 63 percent disapprove. The events of the last week caused nearly a ten point drop in Trump’s approval with Republicans and Independents. For most of the last four years, Trump has been more popular than the rest of the Republicans. That is no longer true. If there was ever a time to cast him overboard this is it.

What Comes Next?

Once again, I do not want overstate what happened. A small slice of Republicans did the right thing. A slightly larger slice said some of the right things. It is not a grand accomplishment, but it is so different than their behavior to date that it is worth analyzing to see what if anything it tells us about the future.

The next few months will answer two questions. First, are Republicans really abandoning Trump? And if so, are they also abandoning Trumpism or just looking for a more capable demagogue to lead their party?

If the past is prologue, the answer to those questions will be decided by Republican voters. The whims of the Republican base has always been a leading indicator of where the elected leadership will end up. The rabid enthusiasm for Sarah Palin in 2008 was a precursor for Chamber of Commerce Republicans like John Boehner donning tri-corner hats and adopting the Tea Party agenda. Trump’s overwhelming primary victory turned the party into an adjunct of the MAGA movement.

Public opinion is fluid. Trump is likely (hopefully!) going to recede from the national political conversation. Things can change, but the early polling does not bode well for ending Trumpism. GOP pollster Frank Luntz tweeted out some internal Republican polling results including:

  • 57 percent of Trump voters say they would vote against any House or Senate Republican who supports another impeachment of President Trump.

  • 31 percent of Trump voters want him to leave the Republican Party and start a new party.

A Change Research poll found that 70 percent of Trump voters believe the false conspiracy theory that Antifa played a role in the violence at the Capitol and 74 percent believe Trump won the election. Additionally, 32 percent of Trump voters blame Congressional Republicans for the violence presumably because they didn’t overturn the results of the election.

If Republican leaders like McConnell really want to “purge Trump from the party,” they have a lot of work to do. They need to de-radicalize their base. They need to put real pressure on Fox News and others to stop feeding their audiences a steady diet of conspiracy theories and racial division. They need to acknowledge that Joe Biden is the President — not just in word, but in deed. And they need to ensure that the Republicans who spoke out and voted for impeachment are protected. Trump loyalists like Jim Jordan are already calling for Liz Cheney to be deposed from leadership. Others are lining up primary challenges against the few Republicans who were willing to accept reality and defend democracy. If doing the right thing — ever so briefly — remains a mortal sin in the Republican Party then the events of this week will not be a reckoning. They will be brief detour on the Republican Party’s further descent into anti-democratic, white supremacist lunacy.