In the last 48 hours, two things have happened that suggest the Republican Party is likely headed to an all-out civil war:
1. The Wall Street Journal editorial board — the pillar of establishment conservative thought in the country — wrote this of former President Donald Trump (bolding is mine):
“Mr. Trump may run again, but he won’t win another national election. He lost re-election before the events of Jan. 6, and as President his job approval never rose above 50%. He may go on a revenge campaign tour, or run as a third-party candidate, but all he will accomplish is to divide the center-right and elect Democrats. The GOP’s defeats in the two Jan. 5 Georgia Senate races proved that.
“The country is moving past the Trump Presidency, and the GOP will remain in the wilderness until it does too.“
2. A new Quinnipiac University national poll shows that three-quarters of Republicans (75%) want Trump to “play a prominent role” in the GOP going forward.
Those two views are fundamentally irreconcilable. You cannot believe that the GOP won’t hold any real power unless and until Trump is removed from any major role in the party and want the 45th President to have a “prominent” spot in the Party’s future. It’s simply impossible.
Elected Republicans have been doing everything they can to ignore this reality.
Trump’s recently concluded impeachment trial is a perfect example. With very few exceptions, Republican senators denounced Trump’s conduct before, during and after the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. And with very few exceptions, they voted to acquit Trump on the charge of incitement.
The offered reason for that seeming contradiction was a technicality: That the Constitution doesn’t make clear whether or not a former President can be impeached. (That is a matter of considerable debate.)
“If President Trump were still in office, I would have carefully considered whether the House managers proved their specific charge,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) said following his vote to acquit Trump. McConnell had spent most of the speech deriding Trump for a “disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty” and noting that “Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
While McConnell and his colleagues were able to wriggle out of making the hard choices on Trump’s conduct on January 6, they only postponed the inevitable. Because there is a reckoning coming between the party’s elected leaders and its base.
To be clear: A party’s leadership is always more pragmatic than its base. While the base has the luxury of being made up of true believers and demanding total fealty to principle, leaders like McConnell have to live in the real world in which bargaining and bipartisanship are the only way to get things done (especially with Democrats in charge of all levers of power in Washington).
But what Trump’s presidency did is widen the gap between party leaders and the base to the size of the Grand Canyon. And not just that: He also created a fantasy world in which the 2020 election was stolen from him — and Republican Party leaders stood by and watched it happen.
“If a Democrat Presidential Candidate had an Election Rigged & Stolen, with proof of such acts at a level never seen before, the Democrat Senators would consider it an act of war, and fight to the death,” Trump wrote on Twitter in late 2020. “Mitch & the Republicans do NOTHING, just want to let it pass. NO FIGHT!”
What that campaign of deception has created is a base in the GOP that hates its own party leaders almost as much as it hates Democrats. And Trump is showing every sign of wanting to keep that base weaponized as he ponders what to do with himself in the future.
Witness Trump’s statement in the wake of his Senate acquittal.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” he wrote. “In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people. There has never been anything like it!”
There is simply no way around this fight for Republicans. This is unstoppable force and immoveable object stuff. Both sides can’t win. All of which means that the GOP civil war is going to get a lot bloodier and uglier before it becomes clear who is actually going to emerge victorious.