To hear the political press tell it, the Republican Party is forever at war with itself.
The story goes like this: The collapse of the mortgage market followed by Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was a prelude to a Republican civil war. The rise of the Tea Party and its insurgents, we were told, constituted a Republican civil war. Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss was thought to be the prelude to a Republican civil war. The Republican civil war really took off in 2014, when (of all things) the U.S. chamber of commerce deployed its divisions to the fight. And of course, Donald Trump’s ascension to lead the GOP was deemed a Republican civil war.
This was always an appeal to an evocative metaphor more than an accurate description of internecine conflict within the GOP. What the press was describing were intraparty tensions. They never rose to the level of civil war because there was only ever one side engaged in the fighting. But what was once figurative is today an accurate description. The party’s fissures cannot be mended in the absence of a deciding conflict, and both sides of the fight seem to know it.
For over a decade, conservative populists waged an insurgent conflict against the GOP’s more institutionalist elements. But, contrary to the popular myth, the much despised “establishment” erred on the side of deference to the new vanguard. The so-called establishmentarians understood the costs of true conflict, which would involve the sacrifice of winnable offices, and they were never keen on paying that price.
When they could, the institutionalists cajoled and coerced succeeding waves of ever-more radical neophytes, convincing them to moderate their demands or abandon imprudent tactics. When that course wasn’t available, they mounted strategic retreats to more defensible ground. All the while, the insurgents and their supporters insisted that the establishment was winning an unfair fight, even as they strengthened their hold over the GOP.
Yet throughout all this, the party’s establishmentarians were conciliatory bordering on craven. Even after Donald Trump’s two-month-long typhoon of misinformation and insecurity that ultimately cost the Senate’s GOP control, conventional Republicans still had no appetite for civil war. “May be the heat of the moment,” National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar reported on the morning after Republicans lost two winnable statewide races in Georgia, “but mood is for declaring war on Team Trump.” Not so, replied Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes. “People are angry,” he said, “Nobody is declaring war on anything. We’ll get through this.”
Those words were written just after 11 a.m. on January 6, 2021. As they were being composed, the president was summoning up forces he could not control, with the explicit intention of setting them loose upon the Congress and the Capitol. At that moment, the establishmentarians’ calculation changed.
In crass political terms, the association with the loose amalgam of political insurgencies that evolved into Donald Trump’s movement had already reached the point of diminishing returns. If Republicans can lose statewide races in Georgia, not because conventional Republican voters stayed home but Trump voters failed to turn out (illustrated best by the statewide victory of Republican public-service commissioner candidate Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr. by a 42,000-vote margin while both incumbent senators lost), the argument that the GOP’s affiliation with Trump is a net benefit had become harder to make.
But even the loss of the House, Senate, and White House over the course of a single presidential term could have been absorbed by the Republican Party’s establishmentarians. This was only electoral politics, after all. The institutionalists have always played the long game, and the long game provides the GOP every opportunity to regroup, rebuild, and recover. It was the siege of the Capitol that finally broke this covenant. The institutionalists could not accommodate an assault on the instruments through which they execute their governing vision. This was a singular violation not just of the Constitution and the nation’s founding principles but of the rules of the game they had played so adroitly.
The fallout is still settling, but the damage that the seismic events of January 6 have done to the Republican position is staggering. Dozens of major U.S. banks and businesses have placed an indefinite hold on political contributions to Republican interests, raising doubts about Republican campaign committees’ capacity to raise the funds necessary to compete with their Democratic opponents. Parties exist as vehicles for winning elections—nothing else. In that regard, the GOP has spent the last two cycles delivering a sorry return on investment. And yet, the party doesn’t appear to care.
The chairwoman of the RNC who presided over these disappointing results was unanimously reaffirmed in her role. There will be no retrospective audit of its officials’ conduct, only to avoid pronouncing the most obvious verdict. The party seems increasingly inclined to reorder itself into an enterprise dedicated to a persecution complex, and the electoral appeal of such a venture seems decidedly limited. After all this—the assault on inviolable republican principles, the insult done to the Constitution’s separation of powers, and the deterioration of the party’s infrastructure—the GOP establishment had seen enough.
The president will be impeached again. But this time, the GOP’s elected leaders are not standing in the way. Neither the Republican House nor Senate leadership is whipping votes against impeachment in the president’s defense. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly happy to have the opportunity to make a clean break with the president. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy is said to be actively supportive of something short of impeachment, like censure. And House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney is actively seeking the president’s legal removal from office. Make no mistake: These are declarations of political war on the president and his populist movement.
Republican leaders understand the stakes. They know that the consequences of open, fratricidal conflict in the short-term are dire. In the longer term, they could even be existential. Even in victory, if such a thing is possible, the winnable races the party will sacrifice and the reputations of upstanding public servants that will be destroyed will be hard to stomach. But there can be no negotiated peace now. The fight for the soul of the institution, a fight that was forever just over the horizon, is upon them. A civil war within the Republican Party is on.