When former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell died in mid-October and former president Trump issued a disrespectful press release, it triggered one of those Good Republican/Bad Republican moments in the media. Powell was lionized as a thoroughly decent man and a war hero, while the Mar-a-Lago Don was, once again, seen as the heel, desperate to prove that he can command coverage even while still in exile from Twitter.
And he does get results. Trump’s declarations still ricochet around social media and set off waves of reactions on cable TV. On MSNBC, Jonathan Capehart said Trump’s dismissal of Powell was, “even for him, one of the most despicable and disgusting statements.” Capehart couldn’t bring himself to quote more than a few words and then turned to former Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who likewise heaped scorn on Trump and referred to Powell as “a great man.”
A fair-minded fact-checker, though, would have to rate Trump’s statement in this case as “mostly true.” Powell did make, as Trump said, “big mistakes on Iraq.” One reason for Powell’s complicity in the deceptive run-up to that war in 2003 was his excessive loyalty to the Bush-Cheney agenda. So Trump may have seemed off base in questioning Powell’s loyalty to the Republican Party when he called him a “classic RINO,” adding “if even that.” And yet, Powell also endorsed Barack Obama and declared that Trump’s role in unleashing the Capitol riot of January 6 caused him to leave the Republican Party. A “classic Never Trumper” would have been more accurate.
Powell had been a loyal member of the Republican Party for much longer than Trump has. And he had a more “distinguished” career than Trump has had. Powell’s beatification in the mass media was reminiscent of how another “war hero,” Arizona Senator John McCain, was treated in his opposition to Trump. McCain was liked and respected by many members of the press; they believed him to be a straight shooter. In one of his last momentous acts in the Senate, he walked haltingly onto the Senate floor to signal “thumbs down” on Trump’s attempt to destroy the Obama-era health care act. Trump was still disparaging McCain months after his death for that one. But McCain has been memorialized as the Good Republican.
The dream is of a permanent majority for white Republicans. It could be called the quest for Final Victory.
For me, this has been a preoccupation since the beginning of the Trump years. Powell, McCain, and the whole gaggle of Bush-era neoconservatives who blazed a trail of destruction through the Middle East were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. What was it that made Trump Republicanism seem to be a new and different kind of threat than the lethal Republicanism we’d been living with since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980? Was it really any worse? Much of the mainstream reaction to Trump was related to his special knack for transgressive performance art. Kicking an Army general the day after his death! The concern was always that he wasn’t as “civil” as traditional Republicans, that he didn’t respect “norms” of political behavior. He was uncouth. And it was difficult for political elites not to notice that Colin Powell and John McCain showed qualities of decency in their everyday lives. They had close lifelong friends; they weren’t detested by their political peers—none of which could be said of Trump. Thus, New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a progressive Democrat, called Powell “an inspiration” and sent a “Rest in power sir” tweet the morning Powell died. Just as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez observed upon McCain’s death in August of 2018 that McCain “represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.” (Bowman’s comment angered some of his fellow Democratic Socialist of America members enough that the Madison, Wisconsin, area chapter called for his expulsion from the DSA, and Ocasio-Cortez was met with a chorus of “This ain’t it, chief,” and “Delete this, queen,” etc.)
That sort of sentimentality seems like a relic of a bygone era. But it also takes us into the realm of personalities, obscuring something more important. Even the obvious historical fact that American militarists like Powell and McCain have a longer trail of participation in, and support for, American carnage around the world than Trump was able to manage misses an important part of the picture. That essential something that felt different about Trump Republicanism finally came into full view in the last year of his term. It’s not a story about civility and manners, and fortunately it is not the story of Trump coming anywhere close to the war crimes of the Nixon-Kissinger years or the brutal military horrors of the Bush-Cheney years. It is the story of how the Republican Party was pulled from the moorings that tenuously held it to an acceptance of the mild form of democracy that was practiced in the United States—a two-party democracy that made occasional attempts to expand political participation. There was long a dream on the American far right that democracy’s expansion could be halted. It began to gather force under Reagan; it soldiered forward under Bush and Cheney. But it became the driving force of the GOP under Trump. The dream is of a permanent majority for white Republicans. It could be called the quest for Final Victory.
When you look back to the Reaganism of the 1980s, you can find many harbingers of what we now think of as Trumpism. The hard right was energized by Reagan’s victory, and he elevated a kind of ideological warrior who might otherwise have been kept on the margins. A powerhouse Republican consulting and lobbying firm called Black, Manafort & Stone was formed in 1980, and one of the partners, Roger Stone, soon made an alliance with New York real estate huckster Donald Trump. (Paul Manafort, of course, ended up playing a large role in the Trump administration, getting convicted of fraud, and then pardoned by Trump.) Other young ideologues came out of the College Republicans movement and into national Republican politics—Lee Atwater and Karl Rove among them. Authors Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers recount a Reagan campaign event in August of 1980 in which activist Paul Weyrich warmed up a crowd in Dallas by telling them not to fall into the “good government syndrome.” “I don’t want everyone to vote,” said Weyrich. “Our leverage in the election quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The story of the Republican Party’s long arc over the last forty years is the story of its anti-democratic element gradually getting closer to the goal of permanently disabling the other party. (The Democratic Party, which specializes in losing winnable elections, has done everything it can to make the job easier.) And yet in any typical news cycle over that period, you’d be able to find evidence of the normal give-and-take you’d expect in a two-party system. And you’d see the dreams of Final Victory coming again to the fore, a little stronger each time.
As one example of normal two-party politics in the 1980s, you’d have Reagan learning quickly as president that he wouldn’t even be able to get even his Republican senators on board for drastic changes to the Social Security program. By 1982 his policy team realized that to make changes that would raise the retirement age and also raise taxes, you’d need both parties to cooperate. So, Reagan made a deal with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and a long-term funding problem was handled without all-out warfare.
Meanwhile, Reagan’s success in winning two national elections, the second by a landslide, gave hope to Republicans that they would eventually be able to eliminate the large Democratic margins in the U.S. House. By 1994, during a mid-term election two years into the Clinton administration, Republicans gained a large number of seats and an intemperate former backbencher named Newt Gingrich became House Speaker. Texas Senator Phil Gramm reflected the confidence of the moment when he said, “I think that realignment can make us the permanent majority party in the Congress.” Gingrich was a proto-Trump figure, once advising candidates on how to use loaded words as “A Key Mechanism of Control,” so that Democrats would be described as “sick, pathetic, bizarre, traitors, bosses,” ad infinitum.
For Trump, it’s you win some, and what you don’t win you challenge in court, and if that doesn’t work you cry foul. Losing is not an option.
When Karl Rove rose to power on the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, he was already known as a “win-at-all-costs” operative, having dragged down promising Democratic candidates in Texas and across the South. Rove, like Gingrich, was an expert divider, and he served an administration so full of hubris that after 9/11 they believed they could entirely remake the Middle East. Similarly, Rove envisioned a second-term agenda after Bush was reelected in 2004 that put Social Security privatization at the core. Bush declared he had earned the necessary political capital and intended to spend it.
Rove has often been described as a man who thought he would be the architect of a permanent Republican majority in those years. But it’s noteworthy that as much as Rove pushed the Bush-Cheney agenda, he accepted that it ended in ashes at the end of Bush’s second term. The war was a failure, the privatization agenda was unpopular, and Bush himself was reviled. Two years after Obama’s 2008 win, Rove told NPR:
But I’ve never said a “permanent Republican majority” because frankly you can’t have that in the American political system, and we don’t want it. You have a permanent majority in place — it’s like the former Soviet Union or like Baathists in Iraq. You don’t have it in a democracy. In democracy, there’s give and take between the two parties.
Rove was apparently willing to learn from what Republicans had been through since the last days of Reagan’s term. They endured eight years of Clinton. They got eight years of George W. Bush. But then they had to live through eight years of Obama! And all along there were occasional Democratic majorities in Congress, too. The dream of Final Victory was still alive among the less “professional” or war-weary Republicans, though. When Republicans made huge gains in seats in Congress in the 2014 mid-terms, the leader of the National Republican Congressional Committee exclaimed,“We’re back to a majority as big as any of us have seen in our lifetimes. It may be a hundred-year majority.”
This is the essential difference between Reagan Republicanism and what has now transmogrified into Trumpism. People like Rove may wish to tolerate the “give-and-take between the two parties” but the party’s rank-and-file have been told by their new leader that it’s time to put an end to it. No doubt the fusty Republicans of the old establishment—George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, et al.—enjoyed a good political donnybrook. None liked to lose. But they never dared question the swinging pendulum that would bring them into power, and then out, and then back in again. There was never any doubt that Reagan’s people wanted to build a majority on the Supreme Court. But, when a justice like Anthony Kennedy or Sandra Day O’Connor disappointed, you could imagine Reagan himself giving an amiable shrug, assuming that they’d have to wait another decade or two to overturn Roe v. Wade. No hurry on that one. For Reagan, it was important to hone the rhetoric and ideology, but when it came to actual political decisions, well, you win some and you lose some.
That truism, one that most everyone lives by in ordinary life, is not accepted by today’s leader of the Republican Party. For him, it’s you win some, and what you don’t win you challenge in court, and if that doesn’t work you cry foul. Losing is not an option. The extent to which this tantrum-based politics has taken almost full control of Trump’s party was evident in the months just before and after Trump lost the 2020 general election to Joe Biden. Because of the way that Trump kept up a daily drumbeat of opposition to electoral democracy, he managed to drag elected officials all around the country—in local offices, in legislatures, and even in Congress—into harebrained plans to disrupt and delegitimize the vote.
It should be shocking to this very day to recall that when Congress met in joint session on January 6, 2021, there were moves among ambitious House and Senate Republicans to block the counting of the votes from Arizona and from Pennsylvania—on utterly flimsy accusations of fraud from Trump’s nuttiest legal advisors. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas objected to Arizona’s votes and was joined by six other senators. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri objected to Pennsylvania’s votes and was joined by seven other senators. On the House side, 121 Republicans voted against certifying Arizona’s votes and 138 of them voted not to accept Pennsylvania’s. There had been rioters in the Capitol earlier in the day, but a different kind of violence was being done by Trump’s congressional lackeys, even as the calls to “Hang Mike Pence” might have been ringing in their ears.
We now know that all of this was part of a plan that Trump hoped Pence would abet as he presided over the vote-counting. As sketched out in a memo by John Eastman, along with another plan hatched by Jeffrey Clark, a top official in the Justice Department, there were a number of scenarios that could have been used to overturn the election. Rejecting the votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania and a few other states, for example, could have thrown the Electoral College count in doubt. If Democrats wanted to object to such a ruling, Eastman allowed, Pence could then say the winner of the presidential election would be determined by a vote of the House of Representatives, with each state getting one vote. Republican plotters knew, of course, that twenty-six delegations were controlled by Republicans. (Those twenty-six states, by the way, represent 47 percent of the population of the country, which equates to the 47 percent of the national popular vote Trump won against Biden.)
In the end, the plans for “a constitutional coup” were just not ready to be executed. Yet Republicans all around the country have been hard at work since then. In states where they have control they’ve marched forward with schemes to suppress the vote, engineer minority control of legislatures and congressional seats (“We are the 47 percent!”), and set up processes where a state’s counted votes might not be accepted if Trumpian legislators don’t like the result.
The Republican Party remains more unified than the Democrats can ever hope to be.
There’s one scene from the aftermath of January 6 that I’ve not been able to get out of my head. The Capitol riots provoked the U.S. House to, for a second time, impeach Donald Trump, which led to a February trial in the Senate, by which time Trump was stewing in Mar-a-Lago. The Senate trial came to its foregone conclusion on a Saturday. I happened to be driving that day, listening to the closing arguments on the radio. As I heard Trump’s lawyer, Michael van der Veen, argue that the insurrection had been planned and “pre-meditated by fringe left and right groups,” and claim that Trump’s speech that day was not incitement but just “commonplace political rhetoric,” I wondered if parts of the defense had been submitted by Trump himself. When van der Veen pronounced anonymous as “anomynous,” he seemed to be the emblematic Trumpian figure: bloviating, untethered from facts and reality, and full of confidence and puffed-up indignation.
The vote was taken, with fifty-seven senators voting to convict and forty-three Republicans standing with Trump. Since sixty-seven votes were necessary, Trump was ruled to be acquitted.
And then came a closing statement by the former Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. It was as lacerating as any argument that had been made by the Democrats prosecuting the case. “January 6 was a disgrace,” he began. The Trump-supporting protesters “used terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like. . . They stormed the Senate floor. . . . They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth—because he was angry he’d lost an election.”
After van der Veen had spent so much time arguing that Trump deserved no blame, McConnell smashed that claim to bits: “There’s no question—none—that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it.”
At the time, I was struck by the contrast. Here were the two faces of the Republican Party: Trump’s lawyer practically inhabited his client’s persona, right down to the mispronunciations. But McConnell spoke as if the Republican Party still believed in ethics and bright lines and playing by the rules. Seven of them even voted as if those old standards still trumped partisan loyalty. Yet McConnell, ever the cynic, had not voted to convict Trump. He calculated that a successful impeachment would be too much of a blow to the Republican Party. He’d reversed the Reagan formula, which was to use militant ideological rhetoric combined with compromising action. McConnell chose the rhetoric of responsibility combined with uncompromising partisan rigidity.
What we hear in today’s Republican Party are only variations in rhetorical style. The party remains more unified than the Democrats can ever hope to be. McConnell has a good chance of becoming Senate majority leader again after next year’s midterms, and he will be able to assist the Democrats in further blocking their own ability to govern. The Trump years showed us once and for all that the Good Republican/Bad Republican dichotomy is a media psychodrama. In practice, Trump needed McConnell to put longterm GOP political advantages in place, to be one of the chief engineers of lasting minority rule. And yet, without Trump, McConnell would have just been another old-style Republican, always annoyed by democratic currents in American politics, but without a rising tide of white conservatives willing to hope and pray—and agitate—for power that will not have to be shared.