On one side of the country, legacy Republicans were agonizing about what their party should be. On the other, Donald Trump’s diehards were revealing what it already is.
At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California Thursday night, ex-House Speaker Paul Ryan wrestled – in the spiritual shadow of the commander-in-chief best known as a scourge of totalitarianism – with what the GOP should stand for.
But Senate Republicans are answering for him, gearing up to use their first successful legislative filibuster of the Biden administration to kill a bipartisan commission into ex-President Trump’s insurrection – the party’s latest rebuke to democracy. The vote, which could take place Friday after Republicans bogged down the floor schedule over a separate bill on enhancing US competitiveness with China, will again show that the GOP stands for Trump over truth.
In another sign of the authoritarian fever gripping the Gipper’s now unrecognizable party, two of Trump’s populist proteges, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, rolled their electoral lie-promoting “America First” tour into Georgia. Both took the stage clouded in controversy. Greene, a freshman from the Peach State, is defiant after comparing Capitol Hill mask rules to the Holocaust. Her Florida colleague is facing a probe into alleged sex trafficking that he denies. Both used their speeches to promote lies about the 2020 election.
Events on Thursday were yet another sign that while Trump may have left Washington in disgrace after an unprecedented attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power, his influence still dominates his party.
Even after vigorously condemning Trump’s incitement of the mob that invaded the Capitol on January 6, Senate GOP Minority leader Mitch McConnell put intense pressure on his colleagues to kill off the commission, CNN reported.
The Kentucky Republican argued that there was no indication that a neutral panel would uncover any more facts about the January 6 attack on the Capitol, as Trump beseeched his supporters to disrupt the vote certifying his election loss. McConnell described the plan as “a purely political exercise.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Republicans were against the commission “because they fear it might upset Donald Trump and their midterm messaging.” The New York Democrat’s critique wasn’t far off. Some members of the Senate GOP leadership had candidly admitted that they feared that the commission, agreed to in a bipartisan deal in the House, would overshadow their 2022 campaign to seize back both chambers.
The use of the filibuster to prevent Schumer bringing up the bill for debate would show that the GOP doesn’t even want to talk about January 6 – let alone try to find out what happened.
The party leadership turned against the commission after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has anchored his conference to Trump, disowned the compromise after Trump demanded he and McConnell oppose it.
The dynamics in the Senate underscored the bargain that authentic Reaganite conservatives have made with Trump, a leader who flouts much of the Great Communicator’s ideology but has a stranglehold on the party’s base.
It was yet another sign that the omnipotent shadow of Trump looms large over the party and has effectively replaced the aura of Reagan, whose influence had magical allure long after he left office in 1989 and died in 2004.
‘What should the Republican Party stand for?’
Ryan, in the days before Trumpism, was once seen as the future of his party, an intellectual but avuncular conservative and policy standard bearer for Reagan’s principles of small government, low taxes and opposition to liberalism.
He was launching a speaker series at the Reagan library entitled a “Time for Choosing” – a reference to the 40th President’s seminal 1964 speech that laid the foundations for modern conservatism and his own tilts at the White House.
According to the Reagan Library, the mandate of Ryan and other speakers will be to address questions including: “Why are you a Republican?” and “What should the Republican Party stand for?”
Ryan’s answer was that the party needed to fuse the populist appeal of Trump to the conservative fundamentals represented by Reagan. He drew an unflattering contrast between Trump – who effectively drove him out of top-level Republican politics – and the 40th President.
“It was horrifying to see a presidency come to such a dishonorable and a disgraceful end. So once again, we conservatives find ourselves at a crossroads,” Ryan said.
“If the conservative cause depends on the populist appeal of one personality or of second rate imitations, we are not going anywhere,” Ryan said, driving home the contrast by praising Reagan as “impressive, polished and agreeable” and “a successful two-term president.”
The vote in the Senate, however, which is likely to deprive the nation of an investigation that would deliver an undisputed, unified truth about what happened on January 6, shows that when it came to a more recent time for choosing, the Republican Party picked Trump.
‘This is Donald Trump’s party’
Across the country in Georgia, two Trump acolytes – whom the former speaker might consider “second rate imitations” – were taking part in a far less genteel event than the dinner at the Reagan library.
The popularity with the GOP base of Greene, whose radicalism has made her one of the top fundraisers in the House, is another sign of the forces transforming the GOP as grandees like Ryan pine for a change of course.
Greene opened her rally speech by mocking journalists “crawling” around her district to seek reaction to her extremist rhetoric – for which she has escaped punishment by her party leaders.
She repeated the lie that Trump won the election in Georgia, accused the military of employing “Islamic terrorist sympathizers” to purge extremists from its ranks and called Trump the “best President ever,” pledging to bring him back.
She also claimed that the size of pre-election boat rallies in the Peach State meant it was impossible that he could have lost.
Greene called for the expulsion from the House of Democrats like Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first two Muslim women in Congress.
“We are not going to be treated like second class citizens because we don’t want to wear a mask anymore and because we refuse to get a vaccine that’s not even approved by the FDA,” she said. All of the vaccines being used in the United States have been given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.
Greene’s speech was packed with misrepresentations, inaccurate claims about Democrats and rhetoric that veered into racially offensive territory. Her false claims about a stolen election are the antithesis of the democracy that Reagan and other US presidents once promoted around the world. And her willingness to invoke the Holocaust for political gain exemplified the ahistorical demagoguery and sense of victimization that is a core component of Trumpism.
Yet House Republican leadership, while condemning Greene’s Holocaust rhetoric, is not punishing her. Instead, it has kicked Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney out of leadership. Cheney voted to impeach Trump over the mob riot and told the truth about his election lies and the insurrection against the Capitol that he incited.
“We had 10 people, 10 Republicans vote to impeach Donald Trump, our President,” Greene said. “We shouldn’t have had one.”
The speech encapsulated Greene’s embrace of Trump’s smash mouth politics and use of derogatory nicknames. Like the ex-President, she sets out to deliberately cause offense and frames outrage that she stirs as proof that Democrats cower against those who are not politically correct and therefore hate “real” American “patriots.”
Gaetz, who has hinted he might run for President in 2024 if Trump doesn’t, took on Ryan directly.
“This is Donald Trump’s party,” Gaetz declared. “Taking advice on party building from Paul Ryan would be like taking advice on how to interact with your in-laws from Meghan Markle,” he said, referring to the Duchess of Sussex, the American wife of Prince Harry who is estranged from Britain’s Royal Family.
Both Gaetz and Greene spent time accusing Democrats of ignoring the Constitution, especially on issues like gun rights. Yet both voted against a commission – along with many other Republicans – that would have examined an assault on the political system enshrined in that document.
It was a contradiction that puzzled Gladys Sicknick, the bereaved mother of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died the day after the riot.
“(Senators) are supposed to uphold the Constitution, and right now, I don’t think they’re doing it,” she said, after a day of touring Capitol Hill pleading with Republicans to support the commission.