In the United States, the Republican party has been unmistakably corrupted by power. Its leadership did not call out Donald Trump for his “high crimes and misdemeanors”, his savage politics, his cruelty, his lies and his conspiracy theories. Voters had to wait until Senate Republicans had refused to convict Mr Trump of impeachable crimes before their leader, Mitch McConnell, would speak truth to power. By then, the question was not whether there was a war over the soul of the party but whether Republicans had a soul worth fighting for.
At the weekend Mr Trump revealed that there would be payback for Mr McConnell and other Republican lawmakers for their “disloyalty”. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mr Trump flirted with running again in 2024 and took swipes at the Biden White House. But he reserved his punches for his own side – targeting “Republicans In Name Only” who voted to impeach him and criticised his incitement of the mob that stormed Capitol Hill in January.
Mr Trump has radicalised the base of his party to a troubling degree by restricting and distorting their view of the world, patterns of thinking and value systems. In a forthcoming paper, Professor Gary Jacobson of the University of California San Diego, writes that Republican politicians who humoured the former president’s “seditious urgings put protection of their own futures within the party above concern for that party’s collective future if devotion to Trump remains its defining feature”.
Nationally, Mr Trump’s a vote loser. There’s no question that Republicans would be better off without him. Polls suggest a majority of Americans want him convicted and barred from holding future office. But he has a vice-like grip over the party rank and file. A recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 79% of Republicans view Mr Trump favourably; two-thirds agreed with his disproven belief that Joe Biden’s win was illegitimate; a majority “support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life”; and almost a third sympathise with the QAnon conspiracy theory that insists Mr Trump was fighting a global child sex-trafficking ring.
Mr Trump, perhaps more than any other post-war US leader, has been helped by a rightwing news media that trades in contrived alternatives to unwelcome truths. Governing becomes almost impossible without adherence to norms such as truth-telling. Mr Trump’s would-be successors peddle a populist narrative of fears and grievances aimed at consolidating support in a predominantly white evangelical base. They are building what appears to be an extreme rightwing political party in plain sight.
The Republican leadership has for decades given a monstrous politics a thin veneer of respectability. But Mr Trump is a monster they could not contain. No doubt some think that without his Twitter megaphone and facing lawsuits Mr Trump might give up. Teasing the voters with a 2024 run suggests this is a forlorn hope.
Republicans may come to their senses. US demographics point to a more younger and diverse population, while Trumpism festers in shrinking parts of the electorate. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are not long-term strategies to win. Mr Trump aims to be a force within the party. Republicans have a good chance at retaking both the House and the Senate in 2022. Failure in two years’ time might spell the end of the Trump insurgency. A victory might spark its rebirth. However the Republican leadership responds, it reveals them – with consequences not just for the US but the rest of the world.