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photo: Tyler Merbler, license: CC BY-ND 2.0
Back in late November I wrote a column headlined, “Don't believe the media hype: Trump's left the GOP in shambles.” The premise was that much of the media, addicted to Donald Trump and the clicks and ratings he’d brought them, were at that time not clearly seeing what had happened in the November 3rd election, bizarrely still seeing Trump (and the GOP) as coming out of the election as winners:
To listen to much of the mainstream media right now, Donald Trump had an enormous election — even as he lost the presidency. He will be leading the GOP in exile, pundits, reporters and TV commentators keep repeating, whether he chooses to run again for president in 2024 or not.
They talk about that possible 2024 run — something no modern former president has done following a shellacking after one term, and after being impeached, no less — as if it’s a done deal and will likely bring Trump back into office. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that Trump will be a “force” in the GOP “for years to come” — as if Trump is going to be alive until he’s 115 years old.
I noted in the subhead of that piece: “Even as he helped thwart Democrats down ballot in this election, Trump has badly damaged the Republican Party. Democrats have opportunities ahead.”
In those first days after the election that might have been harder to see. Many Democrats and progressives, including me, were rightly disappointed over the Democrats losing Senate races they thought would bring them control of the Senate, and losing seats in the House rather than gaining, as had been expected. And, as many of us noted, it became clear Democrats had work to do regarding messaging, particularly in various regions of the country.
But much of the media was blowing it all up into something much larger, as some kind of realignment in the GOP base — bringing in some minority voters, though these gains were minimal — and what that would portend for the future. The reality was in fact simpler and much less sweeping: Trump, making blatantly racist appeals and holding mass rallies in the middle of a pandemic, brought out millions more white rural people who didn’t previously vote or who vote infrequently, even as he lost millions of other voters from 2016, particularly in the suburbs. Still, it wasn’t enough to win, even as it helped Republicans down ballot.
According to political pundits, however, the results put Democrats in a terrible place, as they would now be hobbled, unable without the Senate to pass legislation while the GOP would be making gains and picking up even more seats in 2022 — in the mid-term elections, when the party out of power usually gains seats — to take back the House. It was the perennial “Dems in disarray” story from the media, led by the usual suspects, like Chris Cillizza of CNN, who had a field day.
Flash-forward two months: Democrats have taken control of the Senate after the Georgia Senate runoffs; President-elect Joe Biden is boldly laying out a 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus plan; Trump has been impeached for a second time — for inciting an insurrection; GOP 2024 presidential contenders who hoped to be heirs to Trump, like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, are running for cover, perhaps even imploding; major corporations, from AT&T to Walmart, are withholding contributions to GOP politicians who backed Trump’s voter fraud lies; and the Republican Party is badly fractured, as Trump loyalists attack those who broke away, and the recriminations are just beginning.
It’s true that nobody saw the storming of the Capitol and Trump’s second impeachment —for inciting insurrection — on the horizon. But the contours were there. Trump has rarely helped candidates down ballot — from House races to governors’ races — when he is not on the ballot himself, even as he goes into states and campaigns, as we saw in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and then, again, in the Georgia runoffs in 2021. When the GOP embraces Trump while he’s not on the ballot, it helps Democratic turnout to surge while Trump’s voters just don’t turn out in force.
Whether Trump is convicted in the Senate impeachment trial or not, the GOP is now in the throes of a civil war, unable to break from Trump while not able to move forward with him either. In the House, the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach are facing vicious attacks from Trump loyalists like the odious Reps. Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, and are being targeted with threats of primary challenges. And yet, many of those Republicans who unfathomably didn’t vote to impeach an insurrectionist president won their 2020 general elections by razor-thin majors; they will be ripe for Democrats to target, possibly even upsetting the conventional wisdom that the party out of power wins seats in the mid-terms.
In the Senate, Mitch McConnell is apparently hoping Democrats will do the dirty work of ridding the GOP of Trump in an impeachment trial — too cowardly to hold the trial himself — but it’s not clear there are 17 GOP senators with the guts to vote to convict Trump. If not enough members of the GOP in the Senate vote to convict, it’s a blatant admission that the party is still in the grip of Trump, who will bring them to further losses in general elections. But if they get some guts and convict him, many could be doomed with the base of their party, which has become a poisonous mix of nutbags that have been nurtured and emboldened.
The GOP has spent years using Trump to stack the courts, and to pass tax cuts for their wealthy patrons, but the cost has been that conspiracy theorists, Qanon cultists and white supremacists have gotten a foothold to take over the machinery of the party. Many of these people have always been on the fringes of the party — and have been pandered to going back to Richard Nixon, right up through Ronald Reagan and both Bushes — but with Trump they’ve gotten a firm grip.
Even after the insurrection, this more toxic GOP base is still supporting Trump, including grass roots activists who’ve now taken over the GOP all over the country. The New York Times notes that, “while some Republican leaders and strategists are eager to dismiss these loyalists as a fringe element of their party, many of them hold influential roles at the state and local level.” Per the Times:
In Cleveland County, Okla., the chairman of the local Republican Party openly wondered “why violence is unacceptable,” just hours before a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol last week. “What the crap do you think the American revolution was?” he posted on Facebook. “A game of friggin pattycake?”
Two days later, the Republican chairman of Nye County in Nevada posted a conspiracy-theory-filled letter on the local committee website, accusing Vice President Mike Pence of treason and calling the rioting a “staged event meant to blame Trump supporters.”
And this week in Virginia, Amanda Chase, a two-term Republican state senator running for governor, maintained that President Trump might still be sworn into a second term on Jan. 20 and that Republicans who blocked that “alternative plan” would be punished by the president’s supporters.
“They’ve got Mitch McConnell up there selling out the Republican Party,” Ms. Chase, who spoke at the protest in Washington last week, said in an interview. “The insurrection is actually the deep state with the politicians working against the people to overthrow our government.”
Don’t get me wrong: We’ll all be better off if and when Trumpism is purged from the GOP and our entire society. It has fueled dangerous conspiracies like Qanon that have sucked in people like Ohio schools’ therapist, Christine Priola, a woman previously respected in her community who quit her job the day after she joined others in the Capitol attack “to expose the global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia, including in our government agencies and children’s services agencies.” (And she’s now been arrested and charged with several crimes.)
White supremacists have been empowered for several years by Trump and a complicit GOP, and after the Capitol insurrection they believe they’ve had a huge victory. And as we’ve seen, they’re organizing further attacks, turning the Capitol into what looks like a war zone unlike anything we’ve seen since the Civil War.
So we all have much to lose if Trumpism isn’t vanquished, and we’ll be fighting this hate and lunacy for a long time. Two Qanon cultists are now members of the Republican minority in the House, bringing this poison into mainstream politics. It must be driven out.
But for the media, this is definitely not a “Dems in disarray” story, nor was the outcome of the November elections, in which Democrats took the first step toward pulling the country from the brink by electing Joe Biden and eventually taking back control of the Senate. The big question is, when will the media do the “GOP in disarray” story — rather than portraying it as merely about differences of opinion or a mundane power struggle?
The media’s pandering to Trump and the GOP helped get us where we are, and many don’t seem to have learned a lesson. In the same week Trump was impeached, Politico gave its influential “Playbook” column over to right-wing, homophobic, Muslim-bashing bigot Ben Shapiro, for a guest stint. Eric Boehlert described it aptly:
Promoting someone who has a decade-long history of trafficking in lies and deliberate misinformation, created an uproar both inside the publication and outside, as critics lambasted the outlet for glorifying and legitimizing voices like Shapiro's one week after a pro-Trump insurrectionist mob tried to stage a coup. "Whether it be promoting an us versus them mentality, or dismissing the murder of protesters and innocent children, Shapiro helped lay the foundations for today’s political violence," noted Media Matters.
No, this wasn’t the week to be give a guest column to a bigot who wrote a defense of those Republicans who voted against impeachment. But, after we’ve now learned that the insurrectionists incited by the Republican president came within one minute of confronting or capturing the Republican vice president — who some were seeking to execute — it certainly was the week to be focusing on the complete collapse of the GOP.