In a matter of hours on Jan. 6, the Republican Party went from shrugging off its loss of the White House to a party in crisis.
It was becoming clear just before the violent insurrection at the Capitol that the party had lost two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, making President Trump the first president since Herbert Hoover whose party lost the White House, the House and the Senate in one term. And plenty of Republicans blamed Trump for the Democrats’ success in Georgia.
Trump’s own defeat means the GOP has failed to get a majority of votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections.
Now, Trump leaves office as the only president to be impeached twice, and the House vote against Trump over the Capitol insurrection marked the most bipartisan impeachment in U.S. history.
The Republican fault lines go in every direction: between the grassroots and the establishment, between big donors and aspiring presidential candidates, between House leaders and Senate leaders.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz says he has seen intraparty battles before, “but this one is so deep and so polarizing — and people are so passionate about it — I don’t know how you heal it. I don’t know how you bring these people together.”
The biggest internal division right now, says Luntz, is between Republicans who voted for impeachment and voters who opposed it. He found in research this week that 43% of Trump voters say they would definitely vote against any lawmaker who supports impeachment.
“That makes it impossible for Republicans to put together a majority by 2022, and in fact, that’s a direct threat to the existence of the Republican Party overall,” Luntz said.
Trump’s red line
At the Jan. 6 rally, Trump and his son, Don Jr., went even further, threatening a primary election defeat for any Republican who failed to back Trump’s effort to have Congress overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s election.
“This isn’t their Republican Party anymore,” the president’s son said. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”
And that’s one of the reasons that, even after the violent insurrection at the Capitol, two-thirds of House Republicans and a total of eight senators voted to throw out some of the election results.
Those votes show an even deeper, more fundamental rift in the party says Stuart Stevens, a former Republican consultant and current adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. He thinks the big divide is between authoritarians and those who believe in democracy.
“I think it’s just a straight-up red line,” said Stevens. “This is so much greater than any differences over tax policy or trade policy. It’s a fundamental belief in whether or not you want to continue the American experiment. A large portion of the Republican Party has decided they are for democracy if that means they win, and they’re against it if it means they lose. Which is to say, you don’t believe in democracy.”
These splits are playing out not just on Capitol Hill but among Republicans all over the country.
Jean Evans, the former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party and previously a state legislator, resigned at the end of last year partly due to pressure from within the GOP to back Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.
“The demands that we stand up and support Trump and facilitate these sorts of actions became increasingly hostile and frightening,” Evans said. “And then when I saw the president tweeting for everyone to come to D.C. on the 6th, I thought, ‘What is he doing?’ ”
In Missouri, just like nationally, polls show vast majorities of Republicans believe the lie that the election was stolen from Trump.
The party is split between those who accept reality and those who don’t, a problem that Evans thinks only Trump can fix.
“For the party to move forward, the best thing that could happen really would be for Trump to speak to his supporters and tell them that he accepts the results [and] they should, too,” she said.
Trump has condemned the violence at the Capitol, but he hasn’t acknowledged that Biden won legitimately. Barring that, Stevens thinks, the only solution is for voters to reject Republicans just like they rejected Trump.
“You have to beat them,” he said. “The United States Capitol was taken over by a terrorist gang of cop killers, and the Republican Party still has not come to grips with what that means. If you can be president of the United States, incite a riot to oppose a legal election and take over the Capitol, and that’s not a high crime and misdemeanor, I’m not sure what is.”
But other Republicans think the party can heal itself.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, says the party has and will continue to reject violent actors, but that it has to work with those who believe the lie that the election was stolen.
“They’re going to have to be accommodated, and they’re going to have to find a way, if they want to be effective, to hewn off some of the rough edges,” Reed said. “But our attitude needs to be one of welcoming, not pushing them away.”
Pushing away those who are supremely loyal to Trump would seem to be out of the question, since they represent such a big chunk of the party’s base. But Reed thinks the party can address their concerns and convince them that in a democracy, it’s possible for the Republican Party to lose a legitimate election.
“Political parties have a very strong instinct for their own preservation. So, when a political party is taking a position that marginalizes it, it tends to self-correct,” he said. “It evolves, it adapts, it becomes what it has to become in order to win and therefore survive.”
Regardless of how, or whether, the Republican Party resolves its internal splits, the process will take time, says Frank Luntz: “You have a segment of American society that does not accept the election outcome and is going to continue to speak up, is going to continue to agitate. And that’s going to make this a very unstable period for months and perhaps even years.”
That means a long, unstable period not just for the Republican Party, but for the American political system as a whole.