The Death of the Republican Party

Republican senators appear poised to finish what former president Donald Trump started — the destruction of the Republican Party — if, as appears likely, enough of the GOP caucus votes to acquit Trump.

Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, the lead House impeachment manager, presenting evidence at the trial of former president Donald Trump

There is little hint that Republicans in the upper chamber have changed their minds on holding Trump accountable, despite the damning and compelling evidence presented by the House impeachment managers of Trump’s guilt in inciting the insurrectionary mob to storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021. There are five or six senators who are likely to vote to convict based on their prior votes on the constitutionality of the proceedings. Some were horrified by the video shown by the House managers, but remain steadfast in their decision to hide behind process — still maintaining that convicting the former president after he left office is unconstitutional — while ignoring the gripping and mounting corroboration of Trump’s role in summoning and directing the mob. For Montana’s Steve Daines, the vivid footage revived “horrible memories,” but there is no evidence Daines has changed his mind on the outcome of the trial. As former Alabama Democratic senator Doug Jones tweeted, Republicans are “apparently shaken, but not stirred.”

Florida Senator Rick Scott says the trial is “a complete waste of time”

Others expressed contempt of the proceedings. Jose Hawley, forever a punk, reportedly watched part of Wednesday’s presentation from the visitor’s gallery with his feet propped up on the seat in front of him, reading what NBC reporter Garrett Haake said was “non-related material.” Senator Rick Scott of Florida called the trial “a complete waste of time… [and said] it’s vindictive,” as if discovering the truth has no merit. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — who once was intriguing but is now simply repulsive — tweeted, “I think most Republicans found the presentation by the House Managers offensive and absurd.” Really, senator? The presentation was offensive? Not the rioters looking to hang former vice president Mike Pence and assassinate Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Not Donald Trump, for sending them on their deadly mission? Shooting the messenger is your response, Senator Graham?

No wonder thousands of voters are deserting the Republican Party! According to The New York Times, nearly 140,000 Republicans quit the party in January. That number reflects data from 25 states (19 do not have party registration, and figures were not available in the remainder of the states). The number of potential voters not available to Republicans in future years is much higher, given probable desertions in the remaining states and the possibility that conservative-leaning Independents may no longer vote Republican. The pusillanimity of Republican senators who vote to acquit in the face of overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt likely will drive thousands more from the GOP.

According to Reuters, anti-Trump Republicans held a Zoom call last week to discuss forming a third, center-right party. The meeting included former elected Republicans, former officials in the administrations of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump, and Republican strategists. Their plan includes running candidates in some races against Republicans and Democrats but also endorsing center-right candidates in others, whether those candidates are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. Those on the call expressed dismay over Trump’s actions as president, the subservience of congressional Republicans, and the votes of a majority of the House Republican caucus and eight senators refusing to certify the electoral tally in two states. Again, a failure of Republican senators to vote to convict will only hasten plans to form a splinter party. Republicans have been unable to maintain their hold on the White House, the Senate, and the House with Trump at the helm. With Trump gone, the challenge from a newly established center-right party could further undermine Republican electoral prospects. 

Former president Teddy Roosevelt campaigning in 1912 on the Bull Moose Party ticket

The possible success of the anti-Trump group could lead to the first reordering of the American party system since the Civil War. While third parties have achieved limited success — most famously Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Progressive Party in 1912 — the two-party system has been remarkably stable for over 150 years. The longevity of the modern Republican and Democratic parties rests on both housing disparate factions. The Republican Party traditionally reflected a coalition of socially progressive moderates in the East, big business and financial elements, farmers, and more conservative groups in the center and West of the country. The Democratic Party contained southerners determined to maintain segregation, northern liberals, voters in big cities, and immigrants.

All that has changed since the 1960s. First, the Democratic embrace of civil rights legislation drove white southerners out of the party and into the opposition. Then, Ronald Reagan succeeded in making Republicans a more conservative party while attracting many workers in the North who once voted Democratic. Now, in recent years, the two parties have become far more ideological, with Republicans moving further to the right, Democrats to the left. When the two parties were coalitions of conservative and liberal elements, they were able to fashion bipartisan compromises to advance the public interest. Now, the Republican Party under Trump has become a cult of personality intent only on maintaining power. (Political theorists Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have claimed for nearly a decade that the Republican Party has ceased to believe in governing and is no longer moved by evidence and science. Trump has only made these trends worse.)

The status of the two parties today reminds historians of the breakup of the party system in the 1850s, just prior to the Civil War, when two things happened. First, millions of immigrants — mostly Catholic — flocked to America, congregating in big cities and voting Democratic. By the mid-1850s, the Know-Nothing Party — comprised of native-born Protestants — had attracted millions of formerly Whig voters. The party lasted only for a few years, leaving its voters without a home.

Second, and more importantly, the Whigs always represented a coalition of Southern planters and northern business groups. Many of these Northerners were reform-minded, and many opposed slavery. The Whigs fell apart — as did other national institutions, such as Protestant denominations — under the pressure of a rising northern determination to restrict the extension of slavery in the vast unorganized Louisiana territory acquired from France in 1803 and the Mexican Cession of 1848.

The Republican Party ticket in 1860

By 1854, when Congress voted to organize the Nebraska Territory (modern Kansas and Nebraska) under the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which allowed Southern planters to move into the territory with their slaves, the North erupted in anger. Anti-slavery Northerners formed the Republican Party, which attracted the votes of those opposed to slavery along with many who voted Know-Nothing in the mid-1850s.The new party elected Abraham Lincoln president in 1860, and, within months, seven southern states seceded, leading to the Civil War. After the war, and the period of Reconstruction, the two parties — Republicans and Democrats — formed the current American party system.

It has lasted, giving the nation remarkable political stability, for more than a century-and-a-half. Whether it can withstand the presidency of Donald Trump, the move of the Republican Party into a cult of personality devoted to Trump, and the development of ideological parties unable to govern is today’s over-arching political question.

The votes of more than two-thirds of Republican senators — needed to acquit Trump — will only hasten the realignment of parties. 

Posted February 12, 2021

Comments are closed.