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The Republican Rift Goes Far Deeper Than Just Trump And McConnell

The divide between Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump, seen here in the Oval Office in July 2020, is a symptom of something that's been brewing since long before the Trump era.
The divide between Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and former President Donald Trump, seen here in the Oval Office in July 2020, is a symptom of something that's been brewing since long before the Trump era.

The rift within the Republican Party spilled out into full view this week.

After voting to acquit Donald Trump on an impeachment charge of incitement of insurrection following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said unequivocally that the former president is to blame.

"There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day," said McConnell, who noted he didn't vote to convict because he believes a former official can't be tried for impeachment.

Trump responded, as he likes to say, 10 times harder. In a statement Tuesday, he called McConnell "a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack" and added, "[I]f Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again."

McConnell worked with Trump over his four years in the White House. The Senate leader shepherded Trump's tax cuts through Congress and got a record number of judges confirmed to the federal bench.

But it was perhaps predictable that it would end this way. There was only so long that the Kentucky Republican — and the establishment wing of the party he represents — could try to ride the tiger that is Trump.

These are two very different men, but the infighting represents something far broader than just the two of them. It is emblematic of the splintering between rank-and-file Republicans and has roots much further back than Trump's political rise.

Still Trump's party

Make no mistake: The GOP of 2021 is very much Trump's party.

His approval ratings among Republicans continue to tower over others in the party, and two-thirds of Republicans say they still want him to lead the GOP.

Trump also controls much of the conservative political apparatus in the country, with the Republican National Committee firmly within his grip.

That means state party officials are fully in his camp, something that has been made perfectly clear since Trump's impeachment. County and state parties in a number of states have moved to censure Republicans who voted to impeach or convict the former president.

But something else is happening within the party at both ends of the spectrum.

In higher than normal numbers, tens of thousands of formerly registered Republicans across the country have dropped the party label since Jan. 6. And some — a clear minority of anti-Trump Republicans — are even contemplating forming a third party.

"I've had a number of political people reach out — leaders and grassroots people reaching out," said Evan McMullin, a former policy director for the House Republican Conference who ran for president in 2016 as an independent. He cohosted a call of more than 120 disaffected Republicans interested in the third-party idea earlier this month. "They've had enough and are ready to move on, ready for change."

McMullin said they are mostly "former Trump supporters, who appreciated the policies and the judges, but the insurrection was too much and believe it's time for the Republican Party to move on."

Largely because of Republicans, record numbers of Americans are now calling themselves independents and saying a third party is needed.

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In September, just 40% of Republicans said they thought a third party was necessary. That has now jumped to 63%, according to Gallup.

But this increase is mostly because of Trump supporters, not people who are anti-Trump, said Jeff Jones, a senior editor at Gallup.

"It's more of a pro-Trump group that would want to break away from the GOP," Jones said, adding of the GOP infighting, "There is frustration with both [sides] with each other. ... I think the civil war going on in the Republican Party is pushing them up to these higher levels" of independents and those in favor of a third party.

Not a new divide

The divide between Trump and McConnell is not all that surprising, except for how public it has become.

McConnell is a careful and canny political insider whose lack of dynamism is balanced out by his tactical abilities. He cares first and foremost about putting up candidates who, in his view, can win.

Trumpism, he believes, won't lead to a majority everywhere. After all, during his presidency, Trump alienated college-educated and suburban voters, and the party lost not just the White House, but control of both chambers of Congress too.

Trump, on the other hand, may be undisciplined and divisive, but his outsize personality and bombastic political incorrectness have delivered him the heart of his party and brought new voters into the fold. He believes candidates who position themselves as uncompromisingly in his controversial mold are the only way forward for the party.

This divide, however, is not new. The Republican Party — the party of Lincoln, as Republicans like to say — used to be one dominated by the wealthy and the educated.

The party was not dominant in the South, as it is today. In fact, it had a strong foothold in the Northeast. It was Democrats who had long dominated in the South — "Dixie-crats," they were sometimes called.

But that all started to change in the 1960s with the election of Democrat John F. Kennedy, a liberal northeasterner; the civil rights movement; and Lyndon Johnson's embrace of it.

Jim Crow-era laws were dismantled, and Black Americans were given more rights and freedoms, particularly when it came to integration and voting.

Some in the GOP believed the way to a majority was through a "Southern Strategy." It used appeals to fear and white racial grievances, which began a long arc of an American political crackup centering around race and culture.

Then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announces his resignation on Sept. 25, 2015.
Astrid Riecken / Getty Images
Then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announces his resignation on Sept. 25, 2015.

It arguably laid the foundation for the Tea Party movement, which happened to spring up during the tenure of the first Black president, Barack Obama. That led to the formation of the Freedom Caucus, the block of hardline House Republicans who led to the ouster of John Boehner as speaker and culminated with Trump's election.

In recent years, whites without college degrees have gravitated toward the Republican Party, while voters with degrees — both whites and demographically growing nonwhites in the suburbs — have moved to Democrats.

So, this is a very different Republican Party than it was decades ago. Gone are the concerns of free trade and a hawkish national security with a strong American global footprint. In is a type of right-wing populism with voters animated by cultural issues like immigration, abortion and religious freedom — things the base perceives as necessary to defend to maintain a way of life that liberal popular culture threatens.

Mixed in with this nativism, many in the GOP base now believe misinformation and have declining trust in expertise and institutions.

Trump critic McMullin sees continuity in the former president's rise.

"My view of Trump and Trumpism is it was a logical next step on a destructive trajectory that was already present in the GOP before Trump came along," he said.

Trump's grip on the Republican Party raises questions about the direction of the future of the GOP in a volatile and unpredictable period in American politics, with sky-high polarization and personal distrust.

But even McMullin is clear-eyed about whether, or when, the party will dump Trump. It may take years, if ever, for the Trump fever to break, he said.

"If the party continues to run on Trumpism in 2022 and again suffers defeats, then I think we'd see another portion of Republicans desire a different direction, and, at that point, have an even more robust debate within the party," McMullin said. "And that may not be enough to change the direction of the party.

"It may take another cycle or two to change."

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