It’s not hard to find what Republican politicians thought about Trump-style politics in 2016, because they were out there talking about it. Trump was denounced as a serial philanderer, a pathological liar, utterly amoral, an unmatched narcissist, and a man who “describes his battle with venereal disease as his own personal Vietnam.” And that’s just Ted Cruz.
Then there’s Marco Rubio, who referred to Trump as a con artist, a failure, a fraud, the most vulgar person to ever seek public office, and someone who has “spent a career of sticking it to working people.”
Here’s 2016 Lindsay Graham on CNN declaring that Trump is “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” who “doesn’t represent my party.” Except no. Trump doesn’t just represent the party, he is the party.
On Tuesday night, Republican Sen. Liz Cheney lost her primary battle decisively despite having won that same contest with over 73% of the vote six years ago. As Laura Clawson reported, the most important thing about Cheney’s loss may be what it has to say about the state of the GOP. Members of Cheney’s own party did not miss the opportunity to fling some celebratory spit her way and to give her a good kick while she was down.
Cheney is now enshrined as the Last Honest Republican. But that’s not the case. Cheney was just the last Republican who still seemed to be deluded about the party she represents.
When John McCain ran for the White House in 2008, he did so heading up what was the most conservative ticket, and platform, ever put forward. His selection of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential nominee was an enormous reward to, and boost for, the Rush Limbaugh crowd. Which is also the white nationalist militia crowd.
When McCain lost, and then Romney repeated that failure four years later, in spite of a campaign boosted by dark money billions from the recently decided Citizens United case, it was such a blow that Republicans undertook a serious navel-gazing exercise.
Looking at their recent election results and the changing demographics of the U.S., RNC Chair Reince Priebus cranked out a thick report that called on Republicans to “campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them” while establishing a more diverse group of candidates and a broader tent of positions.
Only while Priebus was laboring on his “multi-year road map,” Republican donors like the Koch brothers had already discovered that stoking hatred toward the first Black president and generating scads of conspiracy theories to feed the “Tea Party movement” was easy peasy lemon squeezy. Why search for ways to engage voters when enraging them was so much simpler?
Four years later, Graham and Cruz and Rubio and the rest might still pretend that they were the heirs to the same conservative Republican Party as McCain, but that party was already dead. Limbaugh, Rupert Murdoch, Breitbart, and a growing wave of social media pundits had created a demand for something darker, uglier, and rawer—something Donald Trump was ready to deliver. Priebus would go on to be Trump’s chief of staff, and if that’s hard to remember now, that’s because he lasted barely six months before being told he was resigning.
The fact that Trump hired Priebus in the first place showed just how unsure the Republicans were in 2016 that the party was ready to go all the way. When horrors emerged in the last stages of the campaign—Trump insulting a gold star family, the stomach-churning contents of the Access Hollywood recording, Michael Flynn checking in with his Russian buddies—there was a tendency to back away, to waggle a finger, to try and put some distance between Trump and the party he ostensibly led. Installing people like Priebus was a sop to the people who still worried that Trump was a bridge too far. Those sops turned out to be completely unnecessary.
In terms that Republicans today would surely understand, right-wing media and the “Tea Party movement” spent years grooming the party to accept Donald Trump and buy into his vile positions and attitudes.
In 2016, the Republican leadership no longer understood their own base. When they finally learned, people like Priebus and Ryan simply left. A few rare people fought. And lost. Like a hermit crab, the Trump party moved into the Republican shell and just lived there.
Here’s one little note from the 2020 convention that shows just how little the Republican Party under Trump wanted to do with its past. The chair of that convention was Ronna Romney-McDaniel. She had used that name all her adult life. Before the convention, she dropped “Romney” at Trump’s request—because of his deep disdain for the 2012 candidate, who is also her uncle.
With the violence of Jan. 6, Republicans had one last moment to put some distance between themselves and Trump. Characters like Kevin McCarthy declared he had “had it” with Trump and Mitch McConnell gave a lengthy speech to Republican senators centered on his disdain for the outgoing Republican boss.
Both of them backed away within days. Because they realized that even if they were disgusted with Trump, their well-groomed party was not. Fed on a diet of hate and calls for violence, the Republican base was not at all upset by the idea that they should engage in an armed coup to maintain white nationalist power. After all, isn’t that what Fox, and AM radio, and traveling circuses (like the Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz show) have been telling them all along?
Republicans are not upset with candidates like Arizona’s Blake Masters saying that Black people are the cause of gun violence, or that Democrats want to take away Republican guns because they know Republicans “have a lot of plans” for using those weapons. Those people saved their disgust for candidates like Cheney. For the Republicans who didn’t go along with their new 1776 moment.
When Trump’s swamp base in Mar-a-Lago was searched for documents essential to national security, Republicans didn’t step back. They saw it as an opportunity to show Trump just how quickly they would pledge their allegiance, even if that meant shredding every vestige of their claims about “law and order.” After Jan. 6, they’ve learned their lesson: support Trump, no matter what supposed principles suffer. In fact, the more disgusting the response, the better.
Trump didn’t create this party. He only confirmed a malignant transformation that had already happened and is still happening. Republican candidates in 2022 aren’t being measured by their policies, but by their ability to create outrage. If a candidate doesn’t spread a constant stream of hate-filled rhetoric, they are immediately suspect.
On Tuesday night, as Cheney was being ousted from a party she seems to believe is still concerned about policies, a state senator who offered Dr. Anthony Fauci the choice of “the chair, the gallows, or lethal injection” easily won his race. He missed the option of the firing squad, which Oklahoma Republicans cheered when a candidate there demanded that Fauci be summarily shot. That candidate gets a vote next week.
This is a Republican Party where Black people are to blame when a white man shoots white kids in a school. Where health officials are causally condemned to death for the crime of trying to stop a pandemic. Where the spiritual advisor of a state senator and gubernatorial candidate goes on stage to tell her audience that Nancy Pelosi “loves to murder children for Baal” and will be killed before the midterms.
The Republican Party is deep in panem et circenses, and anyone who tries to halt the blood sport is absolutely no longer welcome. This isn’t a party that can be reasoned with or compromised with. It can only be survived. And defeated.
Maybe after 2024, the fever will finally break. But probably not.