Letters From an American

The GOP at the Crossroads

The GOP at the Crossroads

My guess is that the story of today that will stand the test of time is that President Biden is governing according to our traditional practices while he pushes the country into the future.

Biden hit the ground running. In the first three days of his presidency, he has taken 30 executive actions (these are orders, memoranda, and directives). Most of these are directed toward fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but he has also overturned some of Trump’s policies: he has stopped construction of the border wall, ended the Muslim travel ban, cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline, rejoined the Paris climate accord, and rejoined the World Health Organization. He also ended the ban on transgender soldiers in the military. These measures fulfill campaign promises and are widely popular.

Today, Biden also launched out in a new direction. He signed an executive order requiring the federal government to buy more of the things it needs here in the United States, rather than buying cheaper products overseas. The directive is a middle ground between protectionism and free trade. The plan is to protect the supply chains for goods the federal government sees as vital, thus bolstering manufacturing in crucial areas.

Recently, the United States has been more willing than other nations to buy foreign goods for government contracts in the interests of keeping federal costs down. This measure will increase costs, but will give that money to Americans. The president of the labor organization the AFL-CIO called the measure “a good first step in revitalizing U.S. manufacturing,” but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it would increase the costs of government procurement and was unlikely to create jobs.

Today the new administration also swore in the first Black secretary of defense, retired general Lloyd Austin, and the Senate confirmed Janet Yellen as the first woman to hold the position of treasury secretary.

But what is taking oxygen today is the war between the two factions of the Republican Party: the Trump faction and the business faction. Republican leaders embraced Trump—unwillingly—in 2016 because he promised to bring energized voters to a party whose pro-business policies were increasingly unpopular.

During his presidency, Trump delivered to business Republicans their wish list: tax cuts and appointments of right-wing judges who are generally opposed to federal government power, which will benefit the businesses who oppose regulation. Trump played to his base and did his best to politicize the U.S. government and make it loyal to him. He seemed eager to turn the government into an oligarchy overseen by him and his children. Business Republicans looked the other way, refusing to convict him in his first impeachment trial.

But when Trump botched the coronavirus response, tanking the economy and turning the U.S. into an international laughingstock, business Republicans began to slide away from the Trump administration. His increasingly unhinged behavior over the course of the past year increased their discomfort. And then, his refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election sparked their alarm.

In contrast, Republicans who were hoping to pick up Trump’s supporters in future elections signed on to his challenge of the election outcome. For some of them, pushing the idea that there were questions about the election was a safe way to signal support for Trump and his supporters, knowing that argument would fail. Others, though, apparently intended to take that idea forward to attack our government.

The January 6 attack on the Capitol split the party. It was a profound attack on our government, in which a group of the president’s supporters overpowered police, broke into the Capitol while Congress was counting the electoral votes, and threatened the lives of the elected representatives who refused to throw out the results of the election and name Trump president.

The attack implicated a number of Republicans: the president, of course, and also Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO), who was the first senator to agree to challenge the counting of the certified electoral votes for Biden, and Ted Cruz (R-TX), who jumped on board the challenge, along with about ten other senators. More than 100 Republican representatives also signed onto the challenge.

Arizona Republican representatives Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs reportedly asked Trump for pardons before he left office because of their participation in the events leading up to the attack on the Capitol. Seven Democratic senators filed a complaint with the Senate Committee on Ethics asking for an investigation of how Hawley and Cruz might have contributed to the January 6 attack. Hawley is trying to brazen it out: today he filed a counter-complaint continuing his objection to the election results and attacking the seven senators who asked for the investigation.

The actions of the insurgents spurred corporate donors to flee, refusing to donate money either to them or to the Republican Party, at least in the short term. Today, Dominion Voting Systems, the company Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other supporters accused of falsifying the election results, announced it was suing Giuliani for defamation, seeking damages of more than $1.3 billion.

In contrast, Republicans who care about the survival of our democracy joined Democrats to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection. Some Republicans are taking a principled stand. Others are aware that Trump’s attack on our government destabilizes the country and hurts business. Further, they are aware that, if Trump or his supporters do manage to put a dictator in charge, the end to the rule of law would make it impossible to do business in this country. Finally, some business Republicans—like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—are furious with Trump for working against Republican Senate candidates in Georgia in his attempt to pressure party members to overturn the election results for him. Trump now has nothing to offer that they want.

The two Republican factions are struggling for control over the party. The Trump faction is organizing around the former president, who is launching broadsides at business Republicans he fears will vote to convict him in his upcoming impeachment trial. Over the weekend, he threatened to start a new political party—the Patriot Party—with the idea of backing Trump challengers to Republican politicians in upcoming Republican primaries. He took in a lot of money after the election on the promise to fight for his reelection; he may or may not have significant money to spend on new candidates. Determined to continue to pressure Republicans, today he launched an unprecedented “Office of the Former President.”

His supporters—including the Republicans implicated in the January 6 insurrection—are downplaying the attack on our government and suggesting that impeaching the president or holding accountable the lawmakers who helped the attack is “cancel culture.” They are insisting that questioning the election is simply free speech. “Give the man a break… move on,” former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in opposition to Trump’s conviction in the Senate.

With Trump blocked from most major social media channels, state Republican parties are acting on his behalf. This weekend the Arizona Republican Party voted to censure Republicans Jeff Flake, the former Senator; Cindy McCain, Senator John McCain’s widow; and current Governor Doug Ducey, who got swept up in their dislike of Trump opponents because he didn’t try to switch the state’s electoral votes to Trump. The Oregon Republican Party did them one better, suggesting that the January 6 insurrection was a “false flag” operation by Democrats to discredit Trump. The Texas Republican Party is now openly supporting the QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Other Republicans are running away from the party as it becomes a personality cult. More than 2000 Florida Republicans switched parties after January 6, and today former Representative David Jolly of Florida, a Republican who has criticized Trump, floated the idea of running for Congress as an independent. About 7500 Republicans switched parties in Arizona. In North Carolina, 6000 Republicans switched out. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from January 10-13 discovered that almost 70% of Americans said the Republican Party should move away from Trump.

But business Republicans still need Trump voters, and the Wall Street Journal today urged them back into the fold. It will not be an easy sell: they are now wedded to Trump, not the party, and his interests are in pressuring Republican senators not to convict him in his upcoming impeachment trial and in keeping his supporters loyal to whatever he decides to do next.

Republicans have a problem. As an aide to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Alayna Treene of Axios, “We’re eating sh*t for breakfast, lunch, and dinner right now.”

Lawmakers will soon have to make a choice about where they stand. The House managers took the article of impeachment to the Senate this evening.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.