More than 11 years ago, before Donald Trump emerged from the primordial ooze of the far-right fever swamp, before the aborted January 6 insurrection and before the latest spasm of Republican extremism felled House speaker Kevin McCarthy, two renowned political scientists, Thomas Mann, and Norman Ornstein, put their finger on the essence of increasingly dysfunctional US politics: the Republican party. Mann and Ornstein argued that the Grand Old Party (GOP) had become an “insurgent outlier” that was “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.
Eleven years later, the enfant terrible of American politics has somehow got unimaginably worse. The GOP today is less a political party and more an inchoate mass of cultural grievances, conspiracy theories and lowest common denominator political slogans. Trump, for all his toxicity, is a symptom of the GOP’s decades-long descent into madness. Legislating is not seen as a tool for bettering the plight of the American people but rather an opportunity to troll Democrats and play to the perceived slights of the party’s rank-and-file supporters.
But Republican indifference to governing is, perhaps, the least of the party’s pathologies. In slavishly supporting Trump and his Maga – Make America Great Again – supporters, they have empowered a political movement that is increasingly testing the limits of the US democratic experiment.
McCarthy’s political trajectory tells the sorry tale. After January 6, McCarthy, who, along with his political colleagues, was forced to hide from the marauding insurrectionists, turned against the man responsible for the day’s violence. Privately, he told fellow Republicans: “I’ve had it with this guy”. But within weeks, he travelled to the ex-president’s palatial digs in South Florida and, on bended knee, pledged loyalty to the GOP’s orange god. He tried to block a bipartisan congressional committee to investigate January 6 and allied himself with conspiracy theorists who continued to spread lies about the 2020 election. Earlier this year, he gave in to Republican extremists and announced an impeachment inquiry of Joe Biden, even though there is no evidence that the president has committed any impeachable offences.
McCarthy, like countless Republican supplicants over the past eight years, realised that his political aspirations were directly tied to his willingness to support Trump and the extremist forces within the party that have rallied around him. In a tale as old as time, he made a deal with the devil, only to be burned by the political forces he’d empowered. Trump’s hold over the Republican party is so complete that it borders on the pathological. Since March, he has been indicted four times and charged with 91 separate felonies. Yet his poll numbers among Republicans have dramatically improved. He enjoys a more than 45-point lead in the race for the party’s presidential nomination.
There simply is no future in the GOP for an elected official who refuses to prostrate themselves to Trump. Liz Cheney was the most vocal and impassioned Republican in speaking out against him after January 6. Her reward: McCarthy engineered her removal from the GOP House leadership. Then, in 2022, a Maga Republican challenged Cheney in a GOP primary and defeated her by nearly 40 points. Another Republican apostate, former presidential candidate and current Utah senator Mitt Romney, who twice voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trials, recently announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election.
In a series of interviews with the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, he recounted how, “in public”, his fellow Republican senators “played their parts as Trump loyalists, often contorting themselves rhetorically to defend the president’s most indefensible behaviour. But in private, they ridiculed his ignorance, rolled their eyes at his antics and made incisive observations about his warped, toddler-like psyche.”
Like other principled Republicans, Romney is choosing to walk away, and it’s hard to blame him. His criticisms of Trump have led to death threats and he is now spending an estimated $5,000 a day on private security. But the result is that the GOP’s ranks are now increasingly filled by those with bottomless reservoirs of ambition and empty cupboards of integrity. So for those hoping that a principled and mature Republican party will somehow emerge from this mess, think again. The political incentives in the GOP run in a singular direction – to the far right. If there is any silver lining, it is this: for all the Republican voters who love Trump, there is a larger mobilised group of voters who loathes him.
Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about Trump is the static nature of his political support. In fact, if one compares his approval ratings from February 2020 – before the Covid pandemic ravaged the nation – to those in November 2020, when he ran for re-election, they were largely unchanged. Since leaving office, his approval numbers have also largely stayed the same. Americans have, by and large, made up their minds about Trump – and the verdict is: “We don’t like him.”
The last three US elections prove the point. In what was largely seen as a rebuke to Trump, in the 2018 midterms, Democrats picked up more than 40 seats and control of the House of Representatives. In 2020, he lost re-election by at least 7m votes to Biden(4m more than he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016). In the 2022 midterms, the Democrats dramatically overperformed, picking up a seat in the Senate and barely losing the House of Representatives. So far this year, in dozens of special elections, Democrats are overperforming by a whopping 11 points. Part of this is a byproduct of the supreme court’s decision on abortion rights, but it’s also a backlash to the extremism that Trump has engendered.
Of course, elections are tricky things and there is no guarantee that the unpopular Biden will emerge victorious next November. But take his current lousy polling with a grain of salt. It’s one thing to want a different Democratic nominee, as many Democrats do, but elections are about choices. That the likely option for voters in November 2024 will be Biden, or a deeply unstable opponent who could be a multiple convicted felon, has a way of narrowing one’s focus. But even if Trump loses, the problem of the Republican party will still be with us long after he’s left the political scene.
• Michael Cohen is an Observer columnist. His most recent book, co-authored with Micah Zenko, is Clear and Present Safety