If we’ve learnt anything during the lead-up to the 2024 Republican primary contests, it is that the Republican Party no longer exists – neither as a body that represents, organises and governs its members and candidates, nor as a policymaking entity that shapes the ideas around which Republicans coalesce.
The Grand Old Party, as it is called, is not the party of former US presidents Dwight D Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George HW or even George W Bush. Those Republican standard-bearers of the past 70 years would neither recognise nor find a home in today’s party.
It would be easy just to blame Donald Trump for the party’s loss of control over its processes, ideology and even its “brand”. But while Mr Trump bears some blame for the GOP’s demise, the problems that are distorting American politics are far more serious. Before taking a deeper dive, a look at the role Mr Trump is playing in damaging the GOP is in order.
If nothing else happened during last week’s inaugural Republican primary debate, the way the event unfolded exposed the party’s loss of control. In preparing for that first sanctioned Republican presidential debate, the party laid out its rules for candidates seeking to be included in the proceedings. Prospective participants needed to register at least 1 per cent in several national or state polls and have recorded a specified number of donors – 40,000 – to their campaign from at least 20 different states. These rules, although they appear to be arbitrary, are normal and necessary – especially in years when a glut of candidates forces the party to winnow down the field to include only “serious”, competitive hopefuls for the debate stage.
There was, however, an additional rule put forward by the party that shed light on just how broken the GOP has become. They stipulated that to gain access to the debate, prospective candidates had to sign a pledge that they would endorse whoever won the primary and became the Republican nominee. This was unacceptable to Mr Trump and he refused to join the debate. He argued that being so far in the lead in all national and state polling, he didn’t see the need to provide his challengers an opportunity to attack him.
This is the same position Mr Trump took in 2015, though he eventually relented saying “of course I’ll support the nominee” – adding that he would do so only because he was sure that he would be that nominee.
This time, Mr Trump took a different and more defiant tack. He not only boycotted the official GOP-sanctioned debate to be broadcast on Fox TV, but also set up his own counter-programme – an interview with recently fired Fox TV host Tucker Carlson – to air on social media at the same time the official Republican debate was being televised.
While making direct comparisons between social media views and television ratings is difficult, here’s what we know: the Fox GOP debate had 11.8 million viewers – that’s one half of the audience that watched the first Republican debate during the 2016 primary season. During the time slot allocated for the debate, the Trump-Carlson interview received 73 million views. Although it’s uncertain how many of these “views” were for more than a few seconds, what was clear was that Mr Trump got the best of the party. They were unable to govern candidate behaviour.
Though not on stage and rarely mentioned by name, Mr Trump loomed large over the event. One political observer likened the eight candidates to “the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner”. Another compared Mr Trump’s absence/presence to Harry Potter’s arch-nemesis, Voldemort – always there and such a threat that his name could not be uttered.
When two brave candidates – both accomplished governors – dared to condemn Mr Trump’s actions on January 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters stormed the US Capitol, they were loudly booed by the audience. Many Republican Party leaders do not want Mr Trump to be their nominee (they also didn’t want him in 2016). His radical populism violates conservative principles. His divisive and sometimes violent rhetoric is concerning. And the fact that he very well may spend much of the next year in court facing several indictments is worrisome. In addition to all of this, Mr Trump won’t play by the rules set up by the party. And yet there is nothing they can do.
Polls show that Mr Trump continues to hold the support of more than one half of those who call themselves Republicans. They will not only vote for him, but also still cling to the many fictions he has created over the years: from “birtherism” – the claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US and was a Muslim – to the contentions that the 2020 election was stolen, Joe Biden isn’t a legitimate president and January 6 was a peaceful protest. A recent poll of Trump voters by CBS News and YouGov shows that 71 per cent believe him. That’s more than the number who say they trust their family, other political leaders or the news media.
The party’s leaders may not want him, but there’s little they can do to him without alienating a significant portion of their voters. The party can’t control Mr Trump or his voters. And now with so many alternative social media platforms, he can extend a greater reach than the party or its former media ally, Fox News.