On October 19th of last year, I published a piece in this space for which I justly received a fair amount of crap.
The headline was “I Think We Just Saw The Moment That Kills The Republican Party Forever,” and I theorized that if Hillary won and Trump refused to accept the election results, it would split the party between Trumpist rejectionists who would insist the vote was “rigged”and non-Trump Republicans who would want to move on. This crackup would be the logical conclusion of eight years in which the Obama presidency sent the GOP into wildly reactionary disfunction.
In my defense, I did say repeatedly in the piece that the scenario was contingent on whether “Democrats, progressives and pro-democracy independents can hold together for the next few weeks,” insisting that “every Democrat/progressive/American who cares about maintaining a constitutional, representative democracy needs to spend the next three weeks like we’re ten points down.” But the anti-Trump forces became overconfident enough to undervote and vote third party in just enough key areas that Trump squeaked by with a narrow electoral college win, despite handily losing the popular vote at roughly the proportion that national polls had predicted and earning a smaller percentage of the vote than John McCain or Mitt Romney.
I also stand by my assessment that if Trump had lost, if those 70,000 votes in the midwest had gone the other way, it would have forced a major, possibly irreconcilable fracture in the Republican coalition. Think about the infighting among Democrats since November, with recriminations between the progressive and centrist wings of the party, battles which have not been stoked at all by Hillary Clinton and very little by Bernie Sanders.
Now imagine that dynamic playing out on the other side, but with Trump lashing out on Twitter every day at Paul Ryan, Reince Preibus, and the other Republicans who accepted the election result. Imagine him tweeting about 3 to 5 million illegal votes cast and Ryan and Preibus telling him to go away because he cost the Republicans a winnable election.
Then take it another step: Trump had already been eying the creation of a Fox News-ish media outlet with Roger Ailes, which would have institutionalized the split between the Trumpists and the rest of the GOP and given Trump a platform from which he would literally never stop attacking the Republicans who he felt had stabbed him in the back. Under those circumstances, the creation of a third party catering to the Trump wing would change from inconceivable to nearly unavoidable.
Of course, all of this is speculation at this point, but I lay it out to make the case that my underlying premise wasn’t as far off base as it might appear, that the Obama presidency did indeed push the GOP into such a radical place that it was in real danger of splitting apart, especially with Trump at the center of the party. And that dynamic is almost certainly still in play.
The Russia Quagmire
James Comey’s testimony that the FBI is, in fact, looking into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections brings into focus a new seismic dilemma for the Republican party: So far, Republicans in congress like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have been covering for Trump so that they can try to pass their agenda and get him to sign it. If and when the Russia scandal balloons even bigger, they’ll be forced to choose between turning on Trump or getting taken down with him. If they turn on him, a significant portion of the Republican base will be apoplectic. If they stay with him, the national security establishment of the country will rebel in a way that makes the leaks thus far look like a cotillion, and military generals’ revolt against George W. Bush in 2006 look like a quinceanera.
There are now only three possible outcomes for the Trump/Russia scandal: 1) The scandal explodes in the way I’ve just described; 2) There really is no fire beneath the Trump/Russia smoke and it all goes away; and 3) The Trump administration manages to fire anyone who gets too close to exposing the real story, which is possible but extremely difficult. Right now, Republicans in Congress are behaving as if there’s no fire under the smoke, but that’s the least likely scenario considering what we already know and given Comey’s testimony. That means the Republican party is currently on a collision course with the national security establishment and their base, even if they don’t know it yet.
To be sure, it is possible that I am being overly optimistic, that Trump and the Republican Party will end up surviving Russia-gate and use their consolidated power to establish the kind of autocracy that former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum warned about in The Atlantic. Many will reasonably argue that I was too optimistic in the fall of 2016, that I was a victim of my own confirmation bias, and that’s totally fair criticism.
But here’s the thing: As I wrote in October, my entire argument about Trump’s defeat and the ensuing GOP crackup was contingent upon the anti-Trump forces behaving like they were “ten points down” and holding together in solidarity until election day – which didn’t happen. The difference now is that the possibility of Republican schism isn’t dependent upon Democratic unity.
In November, the battle was between Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans risking fracture because if Trump lost, he would retaliate against every Republican who he felt had undermined him. Now the battle is between Republicans and the national security establishment, including the Intelligence Community and the FBI.
As in November, if the security establishment loses this fight, all bets are off. But if the security establishment wins, and it is certainly a stronger opponent against Trump than the Democrats were in November, the same dynamic within the Republican party will likely come into play: Those who concede to reality will be blasted endlessly by Trump for stabbing him in the back – pouring so much salt on the wounds that they can never heal – and those who side with Trump will be totally alienated from everyone who sided against him.
The Obamacare Precedent
Even conservative writers like National Review editor Rich Lowry are openly speculating about the possibility of a Republican crackup over Obamacare repeal, with Freedom Caucus hardliners demanding nothing short of full repeal, moderates insisting on keeping aspects that are helping their states (including Medicaid expansion), and rank and file conservatives struggling to coalesce behind Paul Ryan’s totally senseless hybrid compromise. The irony is that agenda items like repealing Obamacare are the only thing keeping the Republicans together at all.
The Obamacare repeal effort is a case study in how the current Republican Party can win political battles on points, like Trump’s election, but has no long term plan. They campaigned against Obamacare for seven years promising a better replacement without considering that no replacement could possibly do what they promised – maintain coverage for “pre-existing conditions” without raising taxes, and so on. They ran on lies and now it appears to be biting them in the ass. Even if they do manage to pass the Ryan bill, they’ll throw the healthcare system into such chaos, even for non-Obamacare patients, that they’re almost guaranteed enormous political backlash.
As with Obamacare, so too with Trump/Russia: There is no apparent endgame, no overarching strategy, just moment-to-moment tactics. And unlike Nixon after Watergate, they have in Trump a standard bearer who will have absolutely no compunction about raining revenge upon anyone who doesn’t stick with him – and the demagogic ability to inflict real damage. In short, Republicans dodged a bullet in November, but that doesn’t by any means they’re out of the woods.
All of which comes back to Obama. None of this GOP craziness, as embodied by Trump, would be happening if Obama hadn’t pushed the Republicans completely over the edge. The success of Obama’s presidency, especially his achievements in pushing through Obamacare and keeping his administration free of scandal, set the Republicans’ house on fire. That doesn’t mean the Democratic Party is in great shape, which is a separate matter for another article, and it also doesn’t mean the Republicans and Trump don’t have potential to do enormous damage before they have their acrimonious divorce. But if the Republican party does crack up in the next year or two, whether over Trump/Russia or something else, it will likely be a direct result of the 44th president.
For better and worse, a significant part of Obama’s legacy was driving the GOP to madness. That was true in October and it’s true now. The only open question is how long a party gone mad can hold together, and how much it destroys along the way. It is contingent on all of us to limit the destruction that the Republicans cause in their deeply wounded state.