The Republican National Committee’s censure of GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for probing the “legitimate political discourse” of the January 6 insurrection enshrined that principle in the party’s policy dogma. The move on Friday underscored the untethered extremism of large sections of one of America’s great political parties and the still malignant, dominant influence of the ex-President, who is ready for action with a $122 million war chest.
The RNC’s declaration coincided with the release of new video by the Department of Justice showing the horrific truth of the insurrection – a Trump mob, high on his election lies, beating up police officers and vowing to drag lawmakers through the streets. But the RNC’s authoritarian was at odds with some anti-Trump stirrings elsewhere in the party, most noticeably from ex-Vice President Mike Pence, who criticized his ex-boss’ demand that he steal the election by subverting the Electoral College count last year as “un-American.”
The potentially irrevocable break with Trump boosted Republicans who despair at the party’s trashing of truth and democracy and occurred amid perhaps wishful whisperings among some strategists that the ex-President’s grip may be weakening. These could be the first shoots of a coming debate over whether Trump should be the party’s nominee for a third time, in 2024.
But Trump’s dark power is also playing out among a larger group – GOP lawmakers who disdain his strongman radicalism but are afraid to speak out against him because they think loyalty is the only way to save their political skins. The acquiescence of most Republicans has long enabled Trump’s assaults on the rule of law and shows little sign of hardening into opposition to the ex-President.
And it played out again last week as GOP senators dodged calls to condemn Trump’s threat to pardon insurrectionists if he wins a new White House term.
And a Republican triumph in midterm elections in November could seat a House majority dominated by Trump’s henchmen and women and give his extremism a new lease on power in the run up to the 2024 presidential contest.
A clear signal from the RNC to Trump
The RNC resolution condemned Cheney of Wyoming and Kinzinger of Illinois for participating in a “Democrat-led persecution” of ordinary citizens engaged in “legitimate political discourse” as they serve on the House select committee that is investigating events during and before the January 6 insurrection.
After the passage of the measure, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel insisted to CNN that the committee drew a distinction between those who did not commit violence on January 6 and rioters who stormed the US Capitol. But the resolution, watered down from a previous version that demanded the stripping of party backing from Cheney and Kinzinger, contained no such caveat. The RNC might have a reputation as a haven for the most dedicated of the party’s activists and may not represent it as a whole. But the symbolism of the entire exercise defied the spin seeking to contain political damage and sent an unmistakable endorsement to Trump over his staunch denial of what really happened on that day.
But appeasing Trump’s culture of violence is not limited to the RNC. In a continuing attempt to ignore the violent scenes, multiple Capitol Hill Republicans have whitewashed the truth of January 6. Many others have tried to obstruct the committee or mislead about its purpose. Trump critics like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney are ostracized by the ex-President’s partisans. Some who voted to impeach him are being drummed out of the party.
Trump clearly incited violence before the mob scene – telling his supporters to “fight like hell” to convince Pence to block President Joe Biden’s election victory. His rallies and rhetoric have long had an undercurrent of menace. And his political speech is only getting more extreme – for example, with his recent threats against Black prosecutors probing his business empire and investigating his attempts to steal Biden’s election win in Georgia.
Trump’s capacity to intimidate is also underscored by the fact that even a frequent Republican critic of his behavior – Sen. Susan Collins of Maine – said that while it’s “not likely” she will support him if he’s the nominee in 2024, she cannot say for sure.
Some Republicans are, however, now willing to call Trump out. Pence’s speech to the Federalist Society on Friday represented a political thunder clap. It may finally have destroyed the delicate balance he was trying to strike between loyalty to Trump and his own presidential aspirations following his determination that he had no powers as vice president to certify the election in favor of the ex-President despite his delusional demands.
Pence’s declarations that Trump’s demands were “un-American” and “wrong” and that he did his personal duty got most of the attention on Friday. But his comment about the implications of Trump’s continued anti-democratic behavior may have laid the battle lines for a future struggle inside the Republican Party itself.
“The truth is there’s more at stake than our party or our political fortunes,” he said. “If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections – we’ll lose our country.”
Some might argue that Pence’s statement was woefully late, more than a year after he left office. And he has still not forcibly condemned the ex-President’s election lies and attacks on democracy. Plus, the ex-vice president abetted the lawlessness and anti-constitutional pyrotechnics during the twice-impeached former President’s term with his admiring loyalty. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Pence’s ex-chief of staff Marc Short also tried to mitigate Pence’s political exposure by criticizing the House select committee.
While noting he didn’t see much “legitimate political discourse” when he was at Pence’s side at the Capitol on January 6 last year, he also attempted to draw fire away from the RNC resolution.
“In talking to some members of the RNC, I think that there is concern that there are people who were there peacefully protesting, who’ve been pulled into this, what I think has more become a prosecution by the January 6 committee, and feel like they’re being unfairly treated,” Short said. The former vice presidential chief of staff is one of several Pence aides who have talked to the committee, breaking with Trump world’s refusal to grant its subpoenas any legitimacy.
While Pence still seems to be equivocating a little, his decision to rebuke Trump publicly is also significant – as it’s the furthest he’s ever gone and is somewhat courageous. He’s already drawing a backlash from pro-Trump Republicans. And his hopes of mounting a viable primary campaign may have disappeared on Friday. Though it was already doubtful that a vice president who thwarted Trump’s illegal bid to hang onto power has any future, given the depth of the GOP base’s investment in the election fraud fantasy.
Is Trump’s grip slipping?
Still, there are at least signs of tentative resistance to Trump, albeit from Republican grandees rather than a new standard bearer with a future in the party who is willing to risk political apostasy.
Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for example, said he doesn’t think Trump should lead the country again. Cheney has said he’s not fit “for future office.” There are other signs around the nation that the ex-President’s grip may not be what it once was. Some of the candidates he has endorsed in the midterm elections have struggled. Some polling suggests a growing number of Republican voters would prefer another candidate in 2024. And potential presidential hopefuls like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are raising the possibility of Trumpism without Trump with hardline “Make America Great Again” policies on pandemic restrictions, abortion, transgender issues and other base-pleasing culture war clashes.
But the ex-President still draws massive crowds. Any lessening of influence at the margins could be down to his comparative invisibility outside the bubble of conservative media. The fact that there is still such resistance to the truth about Trump’s coup attempt – fueled by aggressive GOP efforts to rewrite history – suggests that Trump’s power is enduring inside the party as he eyes a possible comeback. Millions of Trump voters believe he was cheated out of office and still see him as the antidote to their hatred of government elites and a sense that the country as they know it is being taken away by demographic, social and economic change.
Ever since he triggered a political earthquake with his campaign launch in 2015, Trump has crushed all resistance in the party – one reason why so many lawmakers are careful not to cross him now. Primary opponents in 2016 like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were squashed and co-opted by Trump. Critics like ex-Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who retired, and now Cheney, who’s facing a Trump-backed primary challenger, and Kinzinger, who is not running for another term, effectively have had to choose between their democratic principles and their political careers.
While Trump’s ever more unhinged extremism could still destroy his comeback hopes, especially with a general election audience, events of the last few days show he remains the bedrock of the Republican Party.