Nine months ago, I said this about the US Republican Party:
I think its destiny is still very much in the hands of a large middle group; those who don’t like or trust Trump, but who for pragmatic reasons are not yet willing to break with him completely. Senate leader Mitch McConnell is reasonably representative of this group.
… It’s likely that at some point they will feel the need to take a stand, but they will choose their ground carefully.
The time for a full-scale battle for control has not yet come; quite probably it won’t until after this year’s mid-term congressional elections. But the divide between the Trumpists and the rest is getting sharper, and this week it was McConnell doing his best to accentuate it.
The occasion was last week’s vote by the Republican National Committee to censure the two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who are participating in the Democrat-led investigation of last year’s 6 January insurrection. That was predictable enough, but the censure included criticism of the investigation for, among other things, its “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
Officials of the committee now deny that that striking description, “legitimate political discourse”, was intended to apply to the insurrection itself. But the damage was done. For McConnell and others, this was a bridge too far. On Tuesday, he attacked the censure and gave his own – much more accurate – characterisation of the events of 6 January:
We saw it happen. It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election, from one administration to the next.
Polls suggest that the Republicans are well placed to capture control of the House and possibly the Senate in November’s midterms, but to do that they will need to stay on message and reasonably united. That in turn requires avoiding as much as possible the topic of the 2020 election and its aftermath. Their problem is that that is exactly the thing that Donald Trump and his closest supporters most want to talk about.
And since Trump’s attempt to overthrow constitutional government were largely thwarted by Republicans, that inevitably means Trumpists are attacking their own party members. And just occasionally, their targets fight back: as did McConnell, and as did former vice-president Mike Pence last week, when he told the Federalist Society firmly that he “had no right to overturn the election.”
All successful political parties have a well-practised ability to sweep divisive issues under the carpet. But that becomes difficult when one side adopts such an issue as its animating cause. And while hard-core Trumpists remain rare among the party’s leadership, the evidence suggests that they are strong in the grassroots – a recent Pew survey, for example, reported 57% of Republican supporters asserting that Trump bore no responsibility at all for the 6 January insurrection.
So unless Trump can somehow be silenced, this year’s Republican primaries are going to offer a series of what from the party’s point of view are no-win contests. Trumpist victories will saddle them with unelectable candidates, while Trumpist defeats will accelerate the drift towards a Republican civil war. (This is, of course, a repeat of the same phenomenon that we noted last week in relation to Alternative for Germany.)
Party strategists are appalled, one of them telling the New York Times that the midterms had to be a referendum on the Biden administration: “Nothing else matters.” But the reality is that democracy matters more. By their single-minded attacks on it, Trump and supporters are forcing Republican leaders into the role of its reluctant defenders.