Once Again, Republicans Will Choose Radicalization to Turn The Base OutRoundup
tags: Republican Party, far right, January 6
Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer.
In the days and weeks after the attack on the Capitol, Republican leaders publicly acknowledged Donald Trump’s culpability. Last week’s January 6 hearings presented footage of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy declaring Trump should have “immediately denounced” the attack and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell accusing Trump of ignoring his duty as president. It was a striking reminder that immediately after the insurrection, elected Republicans as well as some of Trump’s allies in the rightwing media were rattled by what had happened, uncertain of how to continue.
But the moment quickly passed. January 6 obviously wasn’t enough for Republicans in Congress to actually impeach or for conservatives to break with Trump in any meaningful way. Instead, they closed ranks and rallied behind Trump: Republicans first acquitted him, then they started obstructing every attempt to hold him accountable, and now a majority of GOP candidates are running on the big lie, denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The few who broke with Trump have been fully marginalized or even ostracized from the party. Republicans did not come to see January 6 as the end of the line, the outrageous conclusion of the Trumpian experiment – they have come to see it as a blueprint: never concede an election, never accept defeat at the hands of what they see as a fundamentally “un-American” enemy.
Was there a viable alternative path after January 6? Was that road not taken ever as realistically an option as the statements by McConnell and McCarthy may suggest, at least at first sight? I’m skeptical. I have no doubt that many Republicans, like McConnell himself, personally despise Trump for summoning a mob to attack the Capitol. They may consider Trump too crass, just as they probably aren’t entirely comfortable with the rise of Trump-endorsed white Christian nationalist extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Doug Mastriano.
But they certainly don’t consider any of that a dealbreaker. That’s partly because Republican elites understand they can’t win without the base, and the base remains committed to Trumpism. But there is more to consider than just opportunism. Almost every time the right is at a crossroads, they choose the path of radicalization, even when it’s not at all clear that’s a reasonable choice from a purely electoral standpoint – even when, for instance, it makes winning statewide races on the west coast nearly impossible.
The problem runs a lot deeper than Trump. It is crucial to grapple with the underlying ideas and dynamics that have animated the Republican party’s path for a long time. They have led to a situation in which moments of brief uncertainty almost always result in a further radicalization of the Republican party and the right in general. What happened after the 2012 election defeat that shook conservatives to the core is an instructive example: the Republican National Committee famously released an “autopsy” report that called for moderation and outreach to traditionally marginalized groups. But instead, the GOP doubled down – and went with Trumpism.
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