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Today, House Republicans face a crucial turning point: will they take the threat that conspiracist and accused anti-Semite Marjorie Taylor Greene poses to their party seriously? Or will they punish Liz Cheney, who took a principled stand and told the truth about the threat Donald Trump still poses to Democracy?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a few other Republicans, notably Senator John Thune of South Dakota and Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, have detached themselves from Donald Trump. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the effort. But particularly in McConnell’s case, to paraphrase Tanya Tucker, it may be a little too late to do the right thing now.
Why? Because the clown car has taken over the train: Trump parlayed his fake charges of election fraud into millions of dollars in donations from his fanatical base, a war chest that effectively puts him in control of the GOP. In the last five weeks of 2020, the outgoing president’s lies about a stolen election allowed him to raise over $31 million for his Save America PAC, money that cannot be used to fund his own campaign but can fund the campaigns of his acolytes. Or, according to one expert, the money could be spent on “meals, lodging, or rounds of golf at Trump properties — expenditures that could ultimately help line the pockets of President Trump and his family.”
You choose. More importantly, there is a second pot of money. The more than $207 million raised by the Trump presidential campaign after he was officially declared the loser ( many starry-eyed MAGA folks believed that their money was going to fund his election fraud lawsuits) can be used for a 2024 run—or to fund Trump allies in the 2020 midterms.
This is why they call the GOP the party of Trump: he bought it. Nearly all of them are beholden to him—less because of his silly rallies but because he is the gatekeeper for so much conservative money. Or, as Ana Navarro put it inelegantly when she was guest-hosting The View recently of the Republican Minority Leader’s lunch at Mar-a-Lago, “it’s white slavery, what I just witnessed from Kevin McCarthy. He looks like he’s owned by his master, and his master is Donald Trump. It is pathetic[.]”
Yes, she really said that. But more importantly, the Republican Party is in pieces, causing unexpected nostalgia for a moment in history when being conservative meant disagreeing about the details, but adhering to a few key principles: for example, fiscal conservatism and family values. Let’s take fiscal policy. Trump has left the United States with a history-making national debt, the third-biggest increase ever, and one not seen since World War II. And forget the fact that Trump has the most openly sordid personal history of any president in history. A GOP that can overlook white nationalism, anti-Semitism and the separation of immigrant children from their families doesn’t stand for anything you might remotely call family values.
Trumpism has fundamentally changed what it means to be a Republican politician in Washington by activating, encouraging, and most importantly funding, the most ruthless and nakedly self-interested elements in politics. Many Republicans never came to Washington to make policy in the first place: they occupy seats and hoover up money so that no one who wants to actually pass legislation, even another Republican, will have a chance to do it.
This attitude is currently best typified by freshman Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), who, in an email obtained by Time magazine, confided that he has cynically “built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” Of course, Cawthorn has lied about many things on his way to becoming the youngest member of Congress, so this might be false too. But it is widely believed that Cawthorn, who has movie-star good looks, is merely using a seat in Congress as a personal stepping-stone for a well-paid career as a media pundit.
The main story that is being told about the GOP right now is that it is divided, which is true. There are the Never Trumpers—former Bushies and Reaganites, who have been a minority faction since late 2015. The growing Kook Wing is best typified by congressperson and conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who most recently has asserted that Jews are starting the wildfires in California with lasers fired from outer space.
Then there are the state-level Republican parties who are not only continuing to back Donald Trump’s lies and legal tomfoolery but censuring members of their party who are standing up for the truth: see recent events in South Carolina and Arizona. Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz flew all the way to Wyoming to deliver a spanking to Republican House Conference Chair Liz Cheney in her own state in retaliation for her vote to impeach Trump. Like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, others hover between factions, trying to play an institutional role while also making anxious efforts to curry favor with the “dear leader” in his Florida exile.
But all of the chaos hides a larger point. A political system built on rivers of cash, and a GOP that does not expect its elected officials to do anything but block Democratic initiatives and be sparkling populist media presences, has empowered extremists. It has produced a Republican party that stands for nothing and nobody—certainly not the working-class white people it claims to represent, but that wields tremendous power to hamstring government in a moment when taking action is imperative.
The GOP has been cultivating this stance since the 1990s, but now they have dropped the curtain. The party stands only for the raw exercise of power that Trumpism embodied for four years as he broke and starved the government. And let me emphasize: to stand for Donald Trump is the equivalent of standing for nothing—at least, nothing that counts as public service.
As Nicole LaFond wrote at Talking Points Memo’s “Weekender” newsletter (January 30, 2021), the willingness to continue supporting Donald Trump’s Unreality Show is
revealing of a weakness in the Party. But it’s also revealing of the values elected Republicans are willing to stand behind. It’s just a matter of the McConnells and the Grahams and the McCarthys accepting the world that they’ve enabled and the world it increasingly appears they can’t escape.
At The Editorial Board, John Stoehr agrees. But he also proposes that Donald Trump’s apparent success in bending the GOP to his will is misleading and “totally misunderstands the point of being a Republican.” That point is to sabotage any political program or government mechanism that might strengthen the “greater good” and curb selfish individualism.
Donald Trump’s wads of money are the endgame of a system that has been fully out of control since Citizens United v. FEC (2008). Of all of the reforms that are at the top of the Biden agenda, the one I have not heard a peep about since the end of the campaign is campaign finance reform.
I understand that we currently have more pressing and immediate concerns as a nation as the Biden administration tries to bring the pandemic under control. But without reforming the corrupt financial system that supports elections, we cannot cultivate a functioning government, much less diminish the hold that Donald Trump currently has over our political culture.