WASHINGTON ― They raised the scaffolding up the side of the Capitol, tore down the flag of the United States and, to cheers from their fellow rioters below, hoisted in its place the flag of their hero, Donald Trump.
As Republicans regroup following the loss of the White House and both chambers of Congress in just two years, that single image from Jan. 6 may best illustrate their fundamental problem: A significant percentage of their voting base remains more loyal to the former president personally than the party as a whole, to the point where some of those Trump supporters participated in a violent mob attack on the seat of government to intimidate Congress into keeping him in power even though he lost reelection resoundingly to Democrat Joe Biden.
“Perfect act of a treasonous cult. Their allegiance is to Donald Trump, not the United States of America,” said former GOP Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the party’s 2020 nomination.
HuffPost video of the arrival of rioters on the second floor of the Senate shows that the first to reach the landing was wearing a shirt featuring the logo of QAnon, the bizarre cult built around the trappings of evangelical Christianity and featuring Trump himself as a God-sent messiah.
So entrenched are “Q” followers in the pro-Trump movement that several state Republican parties have actively sought to bring them into the fold. The Texas party even declared: “We are the storm,” mimicking QAnon’s prediction of a coming cataclysm.
Two new Republican House members, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, were elected despite – or perhaps because of – their openness to the “Q” conspiracy theory, which holds that the U.S. government is rife with Satan-worshippers, financed by wealthy Jews, who drink a magical elixir made from the blood of murdered children, and that Trump will someday bring them all to justice.
“Many of us who had loved ones making their daily schedules around what he and QAnon spoke had hoped that after the swearing-in of Biden, they would see the error of their ways,” said Kendal Unruh, a Colorado Christian school teacher and former Republican activist who led the unsuccessful effort at the 2016 convention to dump Trump as the nominee. “As is typical with brainwashed cult thinking, the dates of salvation and destruction, as well as antagonists and their ‘evil’ plans, only morph and change with each passing moment of reality that proves them to be deluded.”
It’s unclear how important QAnon adherents are in the GOP voting base. QAnon, which surfaced online in the fall of 2017, was viewed favorably by 18% of Republicans in a recent Economist/YouGov poll, while 40% had a negative view, and 43% said they didn’t know. (Among Democrats, those figures were 8%, 81% and 10%, respectively.)
While Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told The Associated Press in a recent interview that QAnon was “beyond fringe” and “dangerous,” Trump himself willingly accepted its support and has refused to denounce its followers. “I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” he said in August.
Meaning, longtime Republicans point out that as the party starts laying the groundwork for the 2022 midterm elections, past heroes like President Ronald Reagan, writer William F. Buckley and former Rep. Jack Kemp of New York have been replaced with Trump, the anonymous “Q,” and Greene.
“It tolerates the destruction of all of the founding principles of the Republican Party,” said Sally Bradshaw, for decades a top aide and confidante to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of two Republican presidents. “It does make me sad. Because I spent 30 years in the process trying to make a difference.”
The party of a cop-killing mob
Trump’s hold on GOP voters comes despite his having caused the loss of the House in the 2018 elections and the White House and the Senate in the most recent political cycle, as well as carrying out a slow-motion coup attempt over two months after his defeat last November. He focused the power of the presidency to coerce state legislators into reversing results in states Biden won, to demand that state and federal courts ― including the U.S. Supreme Court ― do the same, and, finally, to rile up the Jan. 6 mob in an effort to intimidate his own vice president and leaders of Congress into tossing out the 2020 election results and declaring Trump ruler.
Photos and videos from that day put the violence he inspired on display to the world. One Capitol police officer was killed, as were a Trump supporter who was shot by police, another who was trampled and two who died from medical emergencies. Two police officers took their own lives in the days to come.
Rioters roamed the Capitol, looking for targets to murder who included Vice President Mike Pence ― whom Trump had lashed out at during the height of the attack with a tweet claiming that he lacked “the courage” to keep Trump in power.
Republicans who had spent years talking about “blue lives matter” and attacking Democrats with the slogan “jobs not mobs” suddenly had to confront a cop-killing mob of Trump’s creation, with Trump himself for hours refusing to criticize the supporters who had heeded his call to converge on the Capitol that day.
Even then, public denunciations were few and far between. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at first sent signals that he wanted Trump to be impeached, but after the House did so he voted last week to dismiss the impeachment charge. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who on the night of the assault said Trump had been responsible, within days reversed himself and claimed that everyone in the country was actually responsible for the attack. And last Thursday, he even traveled to Trump’s home at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, after which both men released statements about the former president’s pledge to help the GOP win control of Congress in 2022 ― even as his only visible efforts thus far have been to punish those few Republicans who have supported impeachment, such as the party’s third-ranking House leader, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney.
To date, she is one of just 15 Republicans in Congress ― 10 in the House out of 211 and five in the Senate out of 50 ― to vote in favor of holding Trump accountable for his words and actions.
This should not be surprising, Republican consultants and analysts said, given Trump’s vow to remain active and even possibly seek the presidency again.
“Donald Trump is not going to fade away into the background. He’s not going to go to Crawford, Texas, and take up painting,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran of the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign, referring to former President George W. Bush. “Which will make it difficult for the Republican Party to go in a different direction.”
Walsh, who saw first-hand the party base’s devotion to Trump during his unsuccessful run against him, said he is not sure the GOP even has any interest in doing that.
“I ran head-first into the cult in my primary challenge,” Walsh said. “I left the party last February and I was asked why at that time, and I said: ‘Because the party has become a cult and I don’t want to belong to a cult.’”
Moving past Trump
Normally after losing a presidential election, a national party takes stock of what went wrong. After Romney’s 2012 loss to Democratic President Barack Obama, Republicans commissioned a post-mortem. The resulting “Growth and Opportunity Project” report urged the party to find ways to broaden its base to Blacks, Latinos and other ethnic minorities, noting that Republicans had lost the popular vote in five of the six previous elections.
Trump did exactly the opposite in 2016, running a campaign of white grievance, and won the electoral vote anyway, leading many party leaders to believe he had found a reliable path to the White House despite having lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. Four years later, Trump lost the popular vote by 7 million and lost five states and one Nebraska congressional district he had won previously, leading to a decisive electoral vote thumping.
Nevertheless, Republicans have taken no steps to determine and correct the mistakes Trump and his campaign made, despite having lost both Georgia and Arizona for the first time in a generation and watching their popular vote record hit seven losses out of eight elections.
The RNC, meeting in Amelia Island, Florida, as Trump’s violent mob attacked the Capitol, issued not one word of criticism about his role in instigating and encouraging it. Instead, they passed resolutions thanking both him and his supporters. And last week, McDaniel released a statement calling his upcoming impeachment trial “unconstitutional.”
Tim Miller, a GOP consultant who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, said that as a practical matter, the party understands that it doesn’t need to win over the majority of Americans to win, particular in the midterms.
“Forty-four percent of the vote is enough to win the Senate, so why change?” Miller said. “The pressure will be toward maintaining a very Trump-esque, white grievance oriented party… Anti-immigration, anti-trade, anti-tech, anti-science.”
Another prominent Republican consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it’s simply too early to understand where the party is headed, particularly with Trump about to get another round of attention as the Senate impeachment trial plays out. After that ends, though, and other candidates who want to run for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination start laying their groundwork, it may well be that even devoted Trump fans are ready to move on.
“Anybody who tells you where this is all going isn’t telling you the truth,” the consultant said. “It’s going to take some time to unpack.”
For Republicans who would like to move past Trump, their best ally may well be the former president himself, who demonstrated during his term in office that he possesses neither the attention span nor the work ethic that may be required to keep himself relevant over the next two years.
After raising tens of millions of dollars for his new Save America “leadership” committee immediately following his election loss through his joint fundraising arrangement with the RNC, Trump has done little to maintain that momentum. While emails and texts continue to solicit money ― currently they cite Trump’s impeachment trial as a reason to give ― the money raised now goes exclusively to the RNC, whose rules prohibit it from favoring any one potential 2024 candidate over another.
Those many millions Trump has already raised are also available to him personally, either as salary he can pay himself or to cover expenses, so how much he chooses to spend helping or hurting candidates in congressional races remains to be seen. During the seven weeks he was actively raising money for Save America, for example, he spent nothing on the Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs that the GOP lost, even though he frequently cited those races in the solicitations.
As of yet, his new committee does not have a public website, does not seem to be raising money, and has only sent out a handful of press releases.
If Trump does recede from the scene in the coming months, top party officials and 2024 candidates will have the opportunity to win back the suburban women and college educated voters that abandoned him in droves.
“The country is changing, was changing, is changing dramatically… To govern, you have to embrace that,” said Bradshaw, a co-author of the RNC autopsy of the 2012 loss. “Republicans have an opportunity to go in a different direction, and I hope they take it.”