During an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last fall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned Republican lawmakers for collaborating with Donald Trump, arguing that the party had been transformed into a cult. Pelosi’s censure, however, also carried with it a strangely redemptive cadence. “One of my prayers is that the Republicans will take back their party,” the speaker said, continuing:
The country needs a strong Republican Party. It’s done so much for our country, and to have it be hijacked as a cult at this time is really a sad thing for America…. What is this? What is this about the Republicans that they don’t care enough about what they believe in as a party — a legitimate party — with beliefs and their view of the role of government? […] I pray that they would get us a Grand Old Party again.
Last month, only weeks after the Trump-inspired storming of the US Capitol building, the speaker could still be heard saying much the same thing.
Those praying for a return of sanity on the right have doubtless been encouraged by the barrage of reports suggesting a substantial Republican exodus in the wake of last month’s events in Washington. “Spurred by the Capitol Riot, Thousands of Republicans Drop Out of GOP,” read an NPR headline three weeks ago, the accompanying report going on to note the more than four thousand Colorado Republicans who had changed their registration in the week after January 6 and observing a similar phenomenon elsewhere. In an article earlier this month, Chris Cillizza argued much the same, noting that the number of Republicans who have recently changed their party affiliation is vastly larger than the number of Democrats. “The January riot,” Cillizza concluded, “has quite clearly tarnished the GOP brand in the eyes of at least a decent-sized chunk of those formerly aligned with the party.”
This seems to track with other data that have recently emerged, notably a Gallup poll conducted between January 21 and February 2, which shows a precipitous drop in in the GOP’s national favorability overall — a drop coming near exclusively from self-identified Republicans and linked directly in some media reports to the party’s supposedly tarnished image among its own supporters following the events of January 6 and the subsequent impeachment trial.
It’s a story with obvious appeal, and one very much in sync with the long-standing liberal impulse to distinguish between the evil Trumpian and (ostensibly benevolent) non-Trumpian factions of American conservatism — the latter perpetually waiting in exile to reclaim its rightful place. It’s also a highly dubious one which, time and again, has proven more media phenomena than tangible reality — each and every supposedly decisive conservative repudiation of Trump seeming to do little, if anything, to slacken his hold on the Republican base.
From the National Review’s now-infamous 2016 Never Trump issue to the abysmal failure of farcical outreach efforts like the Lincoln Project to make 2020 “the year of the Biden Republican,” the former president’s appeal has seemed largely impregnable among the constituency whose opinion actually matters: namely, Republican voters themselves.
According to polling from YouGov, some 90 percent of self-identified Republicans hoped for Trump’s acquittal in the recent impeachment proceedings. A national survey from Quinnipiac University released last week found that some 75 percent of Republicans want him to “play a prominent role” in the party’s future. A Gallup study from February 15, meanwhile, suggests that a plurality of Republicans (40 percent) want the GOP to move in a more conservative direction, compared with 34 percent who want it to remain as is, and only 24 percent who think it should become “more moderate.”
As to the thousands of conservatives supposedly leaving the GOP in disgust, the Economist’s G. Elliott Morris has offered a persuasive countervailing interpretation. For one thing, as Morris points out, the overall share of Republicans changing their affiliation remains quite small in relative terms. More importantly, though, there’s a very real chance that those who are disaffiliating are doing so out of disdain for the party’s current leadership rather than anger at its conduct during the Trump era’s final months. The same February 15 Gallup study identified record support among Republicans for a third party, a trend which strongly suggests animus toward the GOP as a whole has more to do with pro-Trumpian sentiment than the fabled moderate conservative renaissance (Trump himself teased the idea of a new “Patriot Party” following his November defeat).
As an institutional formation, the Republican Party may well be in something like a crisis — party elites are struggling to navigate the rough waters of an early post-Trump era in which a huge swathe of their own rank and file remains intoxicated by the idioms and preoccupations of the past four years. What seems near certain, however, is that the possibility of a Republican Party functionally or ideologically distinct from what we now broadly call “Trumpism” sailed long ago. The negotiation within American conservatism, such as it is, will be more a struggle about affect and branding than a battle over first principles (in many ways, exactly this struggle has defined conservative attitudes toward Trump from the very beginning).
Given the former president’s stranglehold on the American right, the extent to which what comes next explicitly bears his personal imprint remains to be seen. Though all efforts of this kind have failed so far, a sufficiently creative Republican politician may yet devise a way of rhetorically triangulating between the Trump-inflected and anti-Trump modes of conservatism (if the past few years are any indication, such a figure would probably be an instant hit with some liberals).
But make no mistake: Trump’s supposed “hijacking” of the Republican Party was less a hostile takeover than the logical outcome of a decades-long rightward drift shepherded and applauded by conservative elites themselves. Try as they might, there is no sane, sensible party for liberals to rescue. It’s long past time they stopped trying.