Republicans are damned if they dump Trump, and doomed if they don't

America's Grand Old Party is reeling from the midterm election results and unsure what to do with its leader

Donald Trump gave Herschel Walker his backing in the Georgia Senate race. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The aftermath of the 2022 US midterm elections is proving as dramatic as the astonishing outcome. Congress is in a remarkable degree of tumult, and while Democrats are basking in the glow of a once-in-a-century performance, the Republican Party appears to be degenerating into ever-greater levels of chaos and dysfunction.

Democrats not only held Republican gains in the House of Representatives to a breathtaking minimum, but added a seat in the Senate. It was no surprise Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock defeated former football great Herschel Walker. Mr Walker was probably the most unfit Senate nominee from either party in decades, one in a long list of candidates foisted on the party by former president Donald Trump who were defeated in the election. Only JD Vance, an incoming Senator from Ohio, proved electable.

Even the tiny five-vote Republican majority in the House might prove more trouble than it's worth. California Representative Kevin McCarthy is desperately trying to become House Speaker, but still doesn't have enough votes and appears widely disliked by his colleagues. It's unclear what he could do to win over hardliners such as Matt Gaetz of Florida, who recently described his would-be leader as "Cavin’ McCarthy".

The venerable Democratic leader James Clyburn, probably in jest, suggested Mr McCarthy should seek a deal with Democrats to secure the Speaker's gavel. But it underscores that not only do House Republicans lack a leader, their extremist wing is refusing to back down an inch despite the wholesale rejection of their politics by general election voters around the country.

The de facto leader of the hyper-extreme Republican House bloc just illustrated her willingness to go further than ever. Marjorie Taylor Greene continues to insist on "defunding the FBI" and absolutely halting all aid to Ukraine. Worse, at the New York Young Republicans Club’s annual gala on Saturday night, she boasted that if former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon "and I had organised” the January 6 assault on Congress, "we would have won. Not to mention, we would’ve been armed". The only potential targets for gunfire would have been police officers, members of Congress and their staff.

Having campaigned on inflation, crime and budget deficits, incoming Republican Committee chairpersons are focusing on investigating dubious allegations regarding President Joe Biden's son Hunter, who has never been a government official or part of the administration, and, on behalf of Mr Trump, interrogating the work of the January 6 select committee, the Department of Justice and the FBI.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, centre, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, right, will endure a challenging legislative session next year. AFP
There is no visible effort to pull back from Trump and his politics of grievance

There is no visible effort yet to pull back from Mr Trump and his politics of grievance that just delivered such a huge defeat. Despite being the obvious author of the midterm fiasco, he remains the party’s de facto leader and most influential figure even in relative political decline.

Yet he seems to realise that the string of losses leaves him potentially vulnerable to future challenges and that, however quietly and behind closed doors, party leaders are growing more determined to find a way to move beyond his grip.

That's undoubtedly why Mr Trump is being drawn to the most extreme right-wing fringes in the country. He welcomed rapper and fashion designer Ye to dine with him at his Florida hotel despite Ye’s notorious history of vitriolic and violent anti-Semitic remarks and professed admiration for Adolf Hitler. They were joined by Nick Fuentes, who is probably the most prominent young American neo-Nazi. Even though Mr Trump somewhat implausibly insists he didn't know who Mr Fuentes was, he's uttered no criticisms of either of his guests, and by all accounts was deeply taken with the young extremist.

Republican leaders could see Mr Trump was laying yet another trap for them, so they debased themselves, as usual, by harshly criticising Ye and Mr Fuentes, but, with the exception of former vice president Mike Pence and Utah Senator Mitt Romney, declining to criticise, or even name, the former president. Indeed, Mr Trump appears to be on an inexplicable and quixotic campaign to test what, if any, limits he faces in maintaining respectability and viability within the Republican Party.

He even suggested "terminating" the Constitution to restore himself to power, a mockery of the oath taken by every president, and every serving official, to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution. Many oaths of office continue, “against all [its] enemies, foreign and domestic", which must surely include anyone who calls for it to be terminated. The cherry on top was Mr Trump's most audacious piece of national gaslighting yet, insisting, although his statement remains online, he'd never said any such thing and it was all just more "disinformation and lies" from the "Fake News".

Senator Kyrsten Sinema is likely to run for re-election in 2024 as an independent. AFP

Again, timid and limited pushback came from most Republican leaders. If he faces any functional limits to his conduct, they are not apparent. They clearly have no idea what to do about a party leader with whom they cannot win general elections but who they cannot defeat within the party. Were someone else to clinch the party’s 2024 nomination, he would almost certainly launch an independent candidacy that would ensure an even bigger Republican defeat.

Their conundrum could get even worse. Mr Trump's business was just convicted on all 17 counts in a criminal tax fraud trial. Although he was not the defendant, charges against him seem to be looming regarding pilfered government documents and, very possibly, his extensive efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But there’s nothing in US law to prevent someone running for, or even winning, high office while being prosecuted, or even convicted, of a serious offence.

By comparison, Democrats’ woes seem trifling. After the Georgia Senate victory that finally secured them an outright majority, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who has for the past two years exasperated fellow Democrats by refusing to vote with them on key legislation, announced she was leaving the party. But since she wants to keep her committee assignments, nothing in the Senate practically is likely to change. It appears to set up an independent bid for re-election in 2024, since she’s become increasingly unpopular among Democrats.

Republicans can only dream about such minor irritants. Their party leader and his extremist faction just engineered a fiasco, yet they appear neither weakened nor chastened. To the contrary, judging from the conduct of Mr Trump and Ms Greene, they are becoming considerably more radical and, for now, there doesn't appear to be any way to moderate or marginalise them. As things stand, they appear intent on dragging the Grand Old Party, to the cheers of its base, towards possible political oblivion.

Published: December 13, 2022, 9:00 AM