Memo to the Media and Moderates: The GOP You Love is Gone

The persistent and oft-perpetuated myth of a less Trumpy GOP is deferring important decisions and normalizing dangerous behavior

Last week, the authors of Politico Playbook handed over authorship of their newsletter to an anonymous aide to an unnamed Republican moderate Senator. This aide had carte blanche to complain incessantly about moderate Republicans not being taken seriously by the Biden White House and the broader political establishment. Neither this aide — nor the authors of Playbook — seemed to recognize the irony of complaining about not being taken seriously while leading one of the most influential newsletters in the country.

I bring this up for two reasons: first, it was the most bizarre journalistic decision I have seen since the head honchos of Politico asked Ben Shapiro to guest author the newsletter earlier this year. Second, the tremendous amount of attention paid by Politico and others to the supposed good intentions of a small handful of Republicans bespeaks the failure of much of the political media to accept the dangerous threat posed by the latest iteration of the Republican Party.

It’s not just the media. A number of Democratic senators continue to cling to the idea that the Republican Party is salvageable. Senator Joe Manchin — America’s most optimistic/naive public servant — recently asserted that the very Republican Party that spread the “Big Lie” would work with him on legislation to protect voting rights.

When it comes to Republicans, Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Politico’s beloved moderate “Deep Throat” are the exceptions. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Tucker Carlson are the rule. Even with Trump exiled into ignominy, this trend is going to get worse, not better. And the sooner everyone comes to term with that fact, the sooner we can go about the business of saving the country from the political arsonists that call the shots in the GOP.

Trump is the New Norm

I am sympathetic to the hopes from media and moderates for a better, less Trumpy Republican Party. Fifty percent of America’s two-party system devolving into nativist, conspiracy theory-laden, authoritarian lunacy is an unpleasant prospect, to say the least. For a political media that often values balance over accuracy, the eternal hope of a Republican reformation project is critical to holding up the both-sides narrative that drives much of their coverage. For moderates like Manchin, holding out hope for a better GOP defers making tough decisions on issues like voting rights and the minimum wage. In other words, hoping against hope that this is the time Lucy will let you kick the football is easier than reckoning with the fact that there is a true sociopath in the ranks of your Peanuts Gang.

But for those who still want to believe that there is a well-meaning, better functioning Republican Party right around the corner, I offer two pieces of evidence to the contrary.

First, the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee (NRSC) had a problem. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senator and the best fundraiser in the caucus, was persona non grata in MAGA-land. While doing everything he could to ensure Trump faced no accountability for sending a group of his supporters to murder a bunch of Senators, McConnell had the gall to speak about Trump’s culpability for the insurrection. In one of his recent, unhinged diatribes, Trump referred to McConnell as

a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.

Now, Trump’s hatred for McConnell might be his only redeeming opinion, but it creates a fundraising obstacle for Republican Senate candidates. In order to mend fences, Senator Rick Scott, the NRSC chairman, invented a fake award and presented it to Trump with faux fanfare.

It’s hard to conceive a path to a bipartisan working relationship with a group of Senate Republicans handing out insurrection participation trophies.

Second, there was a brief moment last week when it seemed like John Boehner was the hero that the remnants of the NeverTrump Movement had been waiting for. The chainsmoking, merlot-swilling former House speaker was out with a tell-all book where he told some hard truths about the lunatics running the asylum. Boehner took to task Ted Cruz, the Freedom Caucus, and the other “crazies” and “bomb-throwers” that pushed the party towards Trump. Boehner’s critique of Cruz was so harsh that Cruz abandoned his totally sincere opposition to “cancel culture” and threatened to burn copies of Boehner’s book. In the end, Boehner’s book isn’t a path to a brighter future. It is an explanation for how we got to this moment. After a few days playing the anti-Trump hero on book tour, Boehner admitted that despite all of his concerns, he voted for Trump in 2020 because “judges” or some other bullshit. Therein lies the lesson, if a retired Republican currently working in the cannabis industry voted for Trump, there is really no hope for a Republican reckoning with Trumpism.

Why It’s Happening

The continued Republican adherence to Trumpism — the man and the movement — is usually attributed to fear. Cross the man, and you can find yourself on the wrong end of a primary. But that explanation gives Trump too much power and the Republicans too much credit. The Republicans continue to act like authoritarian, racist lunatics because it is in their political interest.

In the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, the belief was that politicians that vocally backed the effort would potentially pay fatal political prices. The most recent fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that the opposite was true. For Republicans, inciting a violent insurrection is great politics, according to the New York Times.

A New York Times analysis of the latest Federal Election Commission disclosures illustrates how the leaders of the effort to overturn Biden’s electoral victory have capitalized on the outrage of their supporters to collect huge sums of campaign cash. Far from being punished for encouraging a protest that turned lethal, they have thrived in a system that rewards the loudest and most extreme voices, using the fury around the riot to build their political brands.

Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley were abandoned by some supporters, ostracized by their colleagues, and ridiculed for their revolutionary cosplay on January 6th. But they were rewarded by the party’s grassroots fundraising base. Despite the fact that neither are up for reelection until 2024, Cruz and Hawley each raised more than $3 million in the three months since the attack on the Capitol. Newly elected Congressional trolls Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn also raised eye-popping sums for junior members with little to no legislative input.

The Republican grassroots fundraising machine is small compared to the Democratic one, but it is growing quickly. A number of corporations and PACs have abandoned their financial support for Republicans over the insurrection and the new voter suppression laws being passed in Georgia and elsewhere. As Republicans depend more and more on the donors that showered Cruz and Hawley with donations, the incentives are going to get perverse pretty quickly.

Why it Matters

You may be asking yourself, “why is Dan ranting about Republicans again? We know who and what they are.” For one, I find it incredibly cathartic. But I am also trying to hammer this point home because many pundits and politicians continue to push a false narrative about the Republicans. Congressional Republicans are continually given the benefit of the doubt. Their arguments are assumed to be in good faith. Their deeply irresponsible behavior and absurd positions continue. And when they are called out, they are unable to accept blame.

Democratic politicians and activists (us) must constantly push back against this absurdity for two reasons. First, as much as it pains me to say this, national media narratives still matter. Many of the voters who decide control of Congress have paid very little attention to the ins and outs of politics since the last election. At most, they will be surfing headlines as they scroll through Facebook or flipping through channels. If the tenor of national media coverage paints an overly generous portrait of the Republicans, it’s easy to see some of these voters are open to the appealing (but dumb) idea of a divided government.

Second, the near-term success of the Democrats and the long-term survival of democracy depends on a passage from the H.R./S. 1. Despite Joe Manchin’s fever dreams, that bill (or any similar bill) will only pass with votes from every Democrat and no Republicans. The decision to eliminate or reform the filibuster is not an easy one for a lot of Senators, and they will only cross that bridge when there is no other option. The prospect of working with a “better” Republican Party allows them to defer that decision again and again until it is too late.

On one level, I understand the temptation to believe that the Republican Party of 2021 is more like Mitt Romney than Marjorie Taylor-Greene. Fifty percent of America’s two-party system devolving into nativist, conspiracy theory-laden, authoritarian lunacy is an unpleasant prospect.

We must resist this temptation to believe in a less Trumpy Republican Party, because normalizing the GOP will make it more difficult to make them pay a political price. And making them pay a severe political price is the only way to bring about change.