Blame the US electorate for the Republican Party’s success
Then US president Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as the incumbent Republican senator Kelly Loeffler addresses a rally ahead of a Senate runoff election – which she lost – in Dalton, Georgia, on January 4th. Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images
Florida, as the ageists put it, is “where America goes to die”. It is also where the Republican Party goes that it might live again. From Palm Beach, Donald Trump and his court consider another run at the White House in 2024. Miami confounds the rule that big international cities are axiomatically leftwing. As for Orlando, Republicans from the US House of Representatives used it this week as a safe space from which to plot a midterm comeback.
Form favours them: the previous two Democratic presidents lost Congress at the first time of asking. So does the demographic churn that was picked up by the 2020 census. Florida and the yet more conservative Texas are to gain seats at the cost of New York and California. After a more respectable than expected defeat last November, House Republicans need no act of God to avenge it next year.
A party of such consistent success, or at any rate competitiveness, has no incentive to change. Sure enough, it doesn’t.
This week marks the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency. But the first 100 of the Republican opposition were always going to say more about America’s future.
How dismal the auguries are. Trump remains the Republicans’ unofficial leader. Congresswoman Liz Cheney is among the apostates to incur a primary challenge and censure by her state party. Marjorie Taylor Greene, her most populist new colleague, raised a scarcely credible $3.2 million in the first quarter. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal star, managed one-fourth as much upon her own debut in Congress.) What hope there was after January’s Capitol siege of an end to the zeal and quackery is now quaint to recall.
I could cite other signs of a hardening Trumpism but, by now, the incorrigibility of the Republicans is well known. The point is to explain it. Too often, the rightward drift of the party is pinned on such fiddly variables as Fox News (primetime audience: 2.5 million) and the Trump “base”, as though a plucky sect were doing all the work.
This is to exonerate an electorate that does not punish extremism as it once did. After four years in which he lived down to all but the direst expectations, Trump lost the presidency by a margin that was some way short of a landslide. Twenty-seven of the 50 states, and not just the obvious ones, still have Republican governors.
Now, not long after a majority of House Republicans contested Biden’s election win – that is, defied the public will – they can meet in reasonable confidence of midterm glory. If these are the wages of extremism, they are eminently affordable.
American voters used to throw the book at hotheads or even eccentrics. A wildness of thought and style cost Barry Goldwater a 16 million-vote defeat in the 1964 election, when there were fewer than 200 million Americans. For the crime of a soggy and meandering liberalism, Walter Mondale lost every state but one 20 years later.
Had the Republicans tasted anything like as crushing a result in November, they would now be six months into a process of reform, or at least a constructive civil war. As it is, there is minimal incentive on their part to reflect, much less change. In a post-landslide age, neither party is ever further than one more heave from power.
It is soothing, no doubt, to believe that a fervent cult, drunk on misinformation, is what threatens US democracy. It gives the problem manageable dimensions. It also avoids blaming the public at large. But no sect, however vehement, can prosper without complacent multitudes. They do not share the stridency of the few, as such, but nor do they mind it enough. The problem is in the many tens of millions, not the low millions.
Yes, the gerrymandering of Congress overstates Republican popularity. So does the electoral college and other anti-majoritarian quirks of a constitution drawn up in another world by landed gentry. Even adjusting for these, however, the GOP stands on a stunningly high floor of support after Trump, after the Capitol raid, after everything.
Not just the House but also the Senate is plausibly recoverable in short order. At some point, the blame for modern Republicanism must pass from the party to an electorate that could cure it at once by levying harsher political costs.
Until then, the strictly tactical case for renouncing either Trump or his fabled-ism will remain weak within the party. Moderate Republicans are left to petition their colleagues’ consciences and principles instead. It is only necessary to read that sentence to despair of their chances. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021