It’s not just Trump’s personality that dominates. So do his ideas, says Simon Marks in Washington
IN WASHINGTON, DC – The strongest image of the year so far in Washington occurred last Thursday on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Shortly after President Biden’s speech commemorating the 6 January uprising on Capitol Hill, Nancy Pelosi invited politicians to observe a moment of silence in the House of Representatives chamber. Exactly a year after she was being hunted by Donald Trump’s conspiracy theory-believing supporters – one of them threatening to “shoot her through the head, live on television” – the speaker sought to pay tribute to the four police officers who lost their lives in connection with the riot.
“They all risked their safety for our democracy by defending the Capitol,” she observed, inviting “all members to rise for a moment of silence.” But while the traditional silence was observed, “all members” were not present. Despite claiming to be the party of law and order, only two Republicans dared risk the former president’s ire by showing up.
Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming was one, cementing her reputation among Trump supporters as a traitor for backing the former President’s impeachment last year and helping to spearhead Congressional efforts to investigate the riot. But it was the Republican flanking her who drew the attention: her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney,
At 80, the man once considered the Darth Vader of Republican politics rarely appears today in public. He chose the anniversary as the moment to excoriate the current generation of Republican leaders. “It’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks that I knew when I was here for 10 years,” he told reporters, endorsing his daughter’s claim that the party is “in thrall to a cult of personality” and “dangerous for the country ”.
There is no question that Donald Trump remains the dominant force in “Grand Old Party” politics. In a nation with no formal opposition leader, he seeks to fill that role. It’s unprecedented. No other former president – or, as Biden called Trump last week, “defeated former president” – has continued to exercise such a vice-like grip over his party.
It’s not just Trump’s personality that dominates. So do his ideas.
The party’s leader in Congress, Kevin McCarthy, has ceded control and allowed these radical figures to hijack his caucus. His companion in the Senate – Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – used to be considered as right-wing as America stretched. Now he’s lampooned daily by Trump, who refers to him in statements as “the Old Crow”.
Many moderates are leaving, chased away after Trump branded them “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only”). Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois would have been one of the party’s rising stars in normal times. In Trump’s world he’s leaving Congress, pleading to find other ways of combating the former president’s influence after he – and many other moderates – received death threats for turning against the party’s new orthodoxy.
America still has a viable two-party system. But former Republican heroes like Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan wouldn’t recognize their old political home. Nor would they be welcomed into it. In the old days, US elections were fought and won in the political centre. But Trump and his supporters believe they can win by embracing the extreme.
The country’s established political institutions are of no interest to them. The Republican National Committee (RNC), controlled by Trump loyalists, now feels sufficiently emboldened to withdraw from the traditional TV debates produced every election by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The RNC says it no longer views the Commission – a fixture since the Reagan administration – as a “fair and non-partisan actor”. It says any Republican running in 2024 must first pledge to boycott any debates the Commission seeks to organize.
That sort of bomb-throwing threatens to upend America’s traditions and horrifies the Washington elite. But Trump and his acolytes look at the polls and see no reason to row back. Biden’s approval rating cratered to 33 per cent in one poll this week. More than 70 per cent of Republicans believe Trump’s “Big Lie” that Biden rigged the 2020 election and is illegitimate in office. The absence of facts to support that makes no difference.
Whether Trump runs again or the party fields a Presidential candidate modeled on him, the die is cast. America’s “Grand Old Party” hasn’t just slipped from its moorings. It’s far out to sea, charting a dangerous and unprecedented course and there appears to be no turning back.