Jeffrey C. Isaac

Why this far-right Republican Party is not nearly as divided as some think: expert

There is an understandable eagerness to celebrate that the Republican party failed to generate a “red wave,” and even experienced some major defeats, in this year’s election. Equally understandable is the inclination to seize on post-election Republican in-fighting as a hopeful sign of the party’s weakening.

There is currently a blame game going on the right, and for perhaps the first time since 2016, some once-significant Republican leaders—former Governors Chris Christie and Larry Hogan, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, even Trump’s Attorney General William Barr—have called for a break with Donald Trump. Others, most notably former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have distanced themselves from Trump, positioning for possible runs in a 2024 presidential primary. The blame game is real. Equally real is in-fighting within the Republican Senate and House caucuses, especially the latter, where titular leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy face challengers who are making real demands as a condition of future support—demands that will no doubt be met, for both McConnell and especially McCarthy are unprincipled cowards willing to do whatever is necessary for them to hold power.

This is all very real. And every fissure within the Republican Party is worth noting and—if possible—exploiting. But it would be a huge political and even moral mistake to exaggerate the importance of these intra-Republican differences.

It is tempting to believe that voters this November repudiated election denialism and an obsession with The Big Lie and registered a preference for “normality.” And some voters did do this in some settings, like Michigan. But a great many did not. Wisconsin voters returned Democratic Governor Tony Evers; but they also returned Republican majorities to both houses of the state legislature, and re-elected Ron Johnson, one of Trump’s strongest supporters, to the U.S. Senate. Texas voters re-elected far-right Governor Greg Abbott, and Florida voters re-elected even farther-right Governor Ron DeSantis, both of whom remain wedded to The Big Lie to this day, however much they might be out of favor with Trump, and however much their “accomplishments” extended beyond the re-litigation of 2020.

The voters who returned a majority of Republicans under the leadership of McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Elise Stefaniak, and Jim Jordan to the House surely did not repudiate election denialism. As CBS Newsobserved: “In the next Congress, there are projected to be 156 GOP House members who have raised doubts about the validity of the 2020 election, an increase from the 147 GOP House members who, in January 2021, voted to object to the certification of the Electoral College.” Virtually every House Republican who voted against the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory on January 6, and then voted against any effort to investigate that insurrection, is returning to Congress. Indeed, they will be accompanied by some new members who actually participated in or at least actively supported the January 6 episode. As the Washington Post reports: “While the Republican Party suffered surprising losses in the midterms, including defeats of many who bought into Trump’s false election claims, the arrival of freshman lawmakers who had come to Washington as pro-Trump activists on that violent day underscores the extent to which the House Republican caucus remains a haven for election deniers.”

The House Republican leadership made very clear, long before the election, that if the party was returned to power, it would use this power to subject the Biden administration and even House Democrats to relentless investigation. And now that its control of the House in 2023 is assured, the same leaders have reiterated this promise. Kevin McCarthy, virtually certain to be the next Speaker of the House, has gone further, pledging to remove three high-profile Democrats—Reps. Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, and Ilhan Omar—from their important committee assignments in retaliation for Nancy Pelosi’s similar treatment of Marjorie Taylor-Greene in 2021. (Back in February 2021 Pelosi, when asked if she had concerns about a precedent being set, replied: “None, not at all . . . If any of our members threatened the safety of other members, we’d be the first ones to take them off a committee.” Now McCarthy will punish some of the Democrats’ most public defenders of democracy, while elevating neo-fascist Greene to a major role in the new Congress.)

Writing in The New Republic, Alex Shephard argues that “A New Republican Civil War is About to Begin,” explaining that “the GOP’s old guard is pinning their renaissance on a Ron DeSantis renaissance. But Donald Trump’s counterestablishment has beaten them once before.” Shepherd’s piece nicely outlines the sources of friction within the Republican party and the foolishness of counting out Trump. At the same time, the piece’s caption is misleading. For there really is no longer a GOP “old guard,” though there are some, like McConnell, who are old and whose loyalty to the party preceded Trump and has often been tested by him. The GOP is the party of Trumpism even if there are now others, beyond Trump, who now might vie for its leadership—or might ultimately refuse to vie for leadership, ceding it to the twice-impeached, disgraced former President who remains the most popular leader among Republican voters, currently holding a 30 point lead over his nearest rival, DeSantis.

Yascha Mounck writes in The Atlantic about “How Moderates Won the Midterms.” Yes, some fanatics were defeated. But who are the “moderates” among the current leaders of the Republican Party either inside of Congress or outside of it? It is true that a handful of pretty far-right Republicans who refused to embrace the January 6 insurrection, such as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, won election. But these candidates are hardly “moderates”; Kemp’s support for the Senate candidacy of Herschel Walker furnishes clear proof of that.

Perhaps the best clue to the meaning of the current recriminations among Republicans is contained in a recent Guardian piece entitled “Trump for 2024 would be ‘bad mistake,’ Republican says as blame game deepens.” The piece quotes an important Republican who recently vacated his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate: “It would be a bad mistake for the Republicans to have Donald Trump as their nominee in 2024. . . Donald Trump has proven himself to be dishonest, disloyal, incompetent, crude and a lot of other things that alienate so many independents and Republicans. Even a candidate who campaigns from his basement can beat him.”

These are powerful words . . . . spoken by Mo Brooks, until very recently one of Trump’s most fanatical supporters, who refused to concede Biden’s victory in 2020, and who spoke at Trump’s January 6 Ellipse rally, declaring “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

If ever there was a MAGA-inspired insurrectionist, it was Brooks, who entered the Alabama Senate race in 2021 with the blessing of Trump, only to run afoul of Trump’s ego, causing Trump to shift his support in the Republican primary to Big Lie proponent Katie Britt. Here is how Politico described the bitter battle that ensued between the two Republican candidates:

Even after Trump put his weight behind Britt in the runoff — and as public and internal polling showed Brooks’ prospects as weak — top conservative commentators like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and Charlie Kirk declared their support for Brooks up to the final day of the campaign. Kirk, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Mark Green (R-Tenn.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Arizona Republican Party chair Kelli Ward spent Monday night on a tele-town hall in support of Brooks, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) also continued to lend their support.
. . . Throughout the runoff campaign, Britt continued to rack up her own endorsements from high profile Republicans, including Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). In the final weeks, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the GOP nominee for governor in Arkansas, and commentator Steve Cortes have also put out statements and videos in support of Britt’s campaign. That follows several other incumbent senators endorsing her earlier this year.

Britt proceeded to win the primary and then the Senate seat in November’s election. The first woman elected to an Alabama Senate seat, Britt’s victory hardly attests to the failure of Trump-aligned election denial. And Brooks’s very public denunciations of Trump hardly attest to ascendancy of Republican “old guard moderates”—unless the likes of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Charlie Kirk, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Rand Paul and Marjorie Taylor-Greene are considered voices of moderation. Indeed, once Britt won the primary, these leaders of The Grand Old Party came together behind her, just as they have all more recently denounced the Justice Department investigation of Trump, rallying behind Jim Jordan’s demand for Congressional investigation of the well-known Critical Race Theorizing Marxist, Merrick Garland.

This is moderation? This signifies real disagreements within the Republican Party?

It is surely true that some Republican voters have lost their appetite for Trump. It is just as true that Trump remains by far the most popular leader among Republican voters, and that, just as in 2016, it is very possible for him to win the Republican nomination, and the presidency, even without the support of a majority of voters. But the more important truth is that should Trump fail to be the Republican nominee in 2024, the nominee is very likely to be another far-right Republican, someone, like Ron DeSantis, whose intelligence and proven autocratic savvy make him even more dangerous.

As Jelani Cobb has recently argued in The New Yorker, Trumpism has an enduring power that far exceeds Trump himself, and “the forces of intolerance, racism, and belligerence he harnessed in American politics will persist” regardless of whether Trump ever again runs for political office.

These forces continue to circulate in civil society and the body politic, spreading lies and conspiracy theories, taking over school boards across the country, and waiting to be re-mobilized by Republican leaders in 2024. In the meantime, House Republicans will use their very real congressional powers to obstruct the Biden presidency, relentlessly attack the Democratic Party, and create chaos in the heart of the federal government.

Only a few short weeks and months ago it was widely understood by a wide range of commentators that the Republican Party is an explicitly illiberal party that most resembles “autocratic parties in Hungary and Turkey,” and is indeed an “antidemocracy party.” No less an authority than retired U.S. Judge J. Michael Luttig, one of the premier Republican jurists in the country, said as much in public testimony before the House January 6 Committee, declaring that “one of our national political parties . . . the former President’s party cynically and embarrassingly rationalizes January 6,” refusing to commit itself to the Constitution and continuing to undermine the legitimacy of liberal democracy.

Yes, in this year’s election some of the most cynical and embarrassing Republican candidates were repudiated—though many were not. Yes, there is back-biting and in-fighting among Republican leaders jockeying for position as the next election cycle looms. But has the Republican Party really changed? Some might wish it has. But wishing does not make it so. And so the party continues to represent a clear and present danger to American democracy.

The Republican onslaught against democracy is upon us — and we must act

This morning at 9:00 am, an "Open Letter in Defense of Democracy" was published, simultaneously, by The New Republic and The Bulwark (see here and here).

The letter was co-signed by around 40 public intellectuals across the political spectrum, from Noam Chomsky and Adolph Reed to prominent former-neoconservatives Max Boot and Mona Charen.

It was drafted by me along with two collaborators: Todd Gitlin and William Kristol.

A few years ago I am pretty sure that neither Todd nor I ever imagined collaborating with Bill, just as I am pretty confident Bill never imagined collaborating with either of us. Indeed, a couple of years ago I locked horns with Bill at a New School conference.

And yet the threat to liberal democracy has never been greater in our lifetime. Each of us has been sounding the alarm in our own way for some time. And as the situation darkened, some e-mail exchanges became a one-off conversation which became a regular Zoom meeting which eventually became a collaboration and a friendship.

The Open Letter is one outcome of this friendly collaboration, an effort for us to reach beyond our normal comfort zones, and to see if we could bring together a range of friends and collaborators from left to right in support of a general statement about the importance of democracy. The statement locates Trumpism and the Republican Party as twin dangers to U.S. democracy, and it calls for serious voting rights legislation and a broader effort to defeat these twin dangers.

From its opening words, the Letter enacts a kind of "common front" among people who disagree about much but who are steadfastly committed to liberal democracy as the best and most legitimate political arrangement for expressing and acting on disagreement. Some of our signatories have long been aligned with the anti-war movement and with the Sanders wing of the Democratic party. Some have been aligned with the more centrist Obama-Clinton-Biden wing. Some were supporters of John McCain or Mitt Romney, and some—most notably Bill Kristol—were supporters of George W. Bush and of Ronald Reagan before him. (It's a pretty diverse list. Check it out.)

And yet we have come together behind the Letter, which has a pretty clear political message. And we have brought together two very different journals, the New Republic and The Bulwark, behind this effort—and it is virtually unprecedented to see such a collaboration between journals such as these. We have not checked our differences at the door. And yet we have come together precisely because we regard these differences as important, and we believe that if the forces of Know Nothingism, racism, and reaction associated with Trumpism prevail, we will all suffer. Our political differences are real. And our joint commitment to democracy is grounded in those very differences.

Many who will read this will be angry about what some of our signatories have said or done in the past. This is understandable. And I hope that it will not get in the way of seeing that the current battle over democracy is very real, the stakes are very high, and some of those with whom you have strongly disagreed in the past are now allies in this struggle.

Many who will read this will believe that it is impossible to talk about democracy without talking about the global climate crisis or the inequalities of global capitalism or the scourge of racism. This is understandable, and I share these concerns. And at the same, I know that there are others to my right—as well as to my left—who think about these things differently than I do, and who are nonetheless fellow citizens who are engaged in their own processes of rethinking, and who wish to join now in defense of democracy. Now is not a time to slap away a handshake—and, to be clear, a handshake is not a marriage vow, it is simply but crucially a form of friendship borne of common experience.

The struggle against the injustices of capitalism remains important to many. So too the struggle against environmental degradation and racism and sexism.

And the best way to further these causes is through education, advocacy, social movement organizing, and participation in electoral politics.

And each of these things—education, advocacy, movement organizing, and participation in at least minimally free and fair elections—is now threatened by the Republican onslaught against democracy.

And so my collaborators and I believe it is important to come together with all of those who are willing to join in defense of democracy.

This does not require us to like all of those with whom we join—though we have made some real friendships through this collaboration—nor does it require us to forget about their pasts or our own pasts.

It simply requires us to acknowledge the ethical and political importance of coming together, across differences, to defend the things that we value in common.

Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best, at another moment when some very different people came together to oppose the tyranny of their time: "We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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