Is this the beginning of the end for Trumpism or the Republican Party?
Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY – February 9, 2022
It was a Republican National Committee meeting that will live in infamy, and perhaps in history. The RNC’s decision Friday to rebrand deadly mob violence at the U.S. Capitol as “legitimate political discourse” and censure two GOP House members investigating the attack has exposed a party so divided against itself that, as Abraham Lincoln told his fellow Republicans in 1858, it cannot stand.
Back then he presented the existential choice as preserving slavery or preserving the Union. Today, the choice is between preserving Trumpism or preserving the Republican Party.
There is increasing evidence that they cannot co-exist. The resolution adopted by the RNC in Salt Lake City has unleashed a torrent of protest from Republicans and former Republicans including, as of Tuesday, sharp comments from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.
They want to move on – from lies, from 2020, from Donald Trump.
‘Condoning conspiracies, lies, violence’
They can read the polls. Most Republicans say they have a favorable view of Trump, but nationally overall, he scored a 42% favorable in one recent poll and high 20s in two others. A new Associated Press poll found that 44% of Republicans don’t want him to run for president in 2024. And 56% of Republicans in a recent NBC News poll said they are more a supporter of their party than of Trump. Only 36% said the reverse.
More than 140 Republican leaders and ex-officials from the bipartisan Renew America Movement denounced the RNC on Monday for censuring Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, “condemning two principled elected leaders while condoning conspiracies, lies, and violent insurrection.”
The list of signers is eclectic – Never Trumpers and no-longer Trumpers, conservatives and moderates, strategists and onetime public servants, former senators and House members, and former Govs. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey and William Weld of Massachusetts.
“How could we be here, where what is the obvious truth by any measure is being conveyed as non-truth by a governing body of a major political party?” Sanford wondered. The censure of Cheney and Kinzinger, he told me in an interview, is like “something out of George Orwell or a really bad sci-fi movie.”
GOP dissent over censure mounts
Chris Christie, another former governor, declared flatly on ABC News’ This Week: “January 6th was a riot that was incited by Donald Trump in an effort to intimidate Mike Pence and the Congress into doing exactly what he said in his own words last week, overturn the election.”
The RNC won congratulations from Trump for censuring the two Jan. 6 renegades on a voice vote. But there were dissidents at that meeting from several states. There were dissidents on Twitter. And there were dissidents on Capitol Hill, notably McConnell and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee.
It is not the RNC’s job to single out Republican lawmakers who hold minority views, McConnell said, and he reiterated that Jan. 6 was “a violent insurrection” – not legitimate political discourse. Romney was particularly harsh given that the RNC is chaired by his niece. “Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol,” he tweeted.
In “Two Roads Diverged,” a book Sanford published last summer, the former South Carolina governor and House member said he’ll never understand how he could have been elected to Congress in 2013, 2014 and 2016 after a sensational extramarital affair, yet go on to lose his 2018 GOP primary for “not bowing to Trump.”
In addition to tracing his personal mistakes, Sanford – who mounted a brief primary challenge to Trump in 2019 – suggests ways to mend his party. Republicans, he writes, should reembrace truth, reason, science, math and accountability, get serious about term limits, rediscover humility, recognize the value of diversity, and trade hypocrisy for consistency.
Trump electoral wreckage is coming
The unanswered question is how Republicans get from here to there, or if that’s even possible. The party is “in the process of self-igniting and I don’t know what the wreckage will look like,” Sanford said.
He was encouraged Monday when a real estate broker in his 70s, a lifelong Republican voter and an active party donor, told him: “I don’t care who is on the ballot, I’m voting for anybody but Trump.” But the next day, Tuesday, the same Trump ally who defeated Sanford four years ago jumped into a primary race against GOP Rep. Nancy Mace, who was critical of Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
“She sold out President Trump,” Katie Arrington says in her announcement video. “In Congress, I’ll be a proud pro-Trump conservative.”
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Rejection by voters – call it electoral wreckage – might be the only path out of Trump cultism. Maybe Arrington will lose this primary to Mace or, as in 2018, she’ll win it then lose to a Democrat. Maybe Trump will run for president in 2024 and lose the GOP primary, or maybe he’ll win it and then, as in 2020, lose the White House. Maybe he will, as Sanford fears, claim again that the election was stolen – and even more Americans will come to believe the dangerous idea that “elections are no longer real.”
Or, thanks to the RNC’s stunning obtuseness, we can hope for a tipping point. More and more Republicans and conservatives are fed up. Trump’s claims to have won Arizona are “an outright lie,” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said Monday on his radio show.
I am confident that he spoke for millions across the political spectrum when he told Trump to stop wasting people’s time because “nobody cares about 2020.”
Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.”