Why Georgia's run-offs could determine the future of the Republican Party

Donald Trump's contestation of the US presidential election has exposed fissures in the GOP

Trump loses his temper but admits he will leave White House

Trump loses his temper but admits he will leave White House
Trump loses his temper but admits he will leave White House
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The US political system is designed to funnel Americans into two giant and uneasy coalitions known as the Republican and Democratic parties. So, following every election, internal divisions typically flare.

With Joe Biden set to be sworn in as president next month, the Democratic split between moderates and progressives will be significant. But Republicans are fractured into at least four camps that are already clashing over the two Georgia run-off elections on January 5 that will determine control of the US Senate.

The smallest but most extreme faction is fixated on US President Donald Trump's conspiracy theories that he won the election but was robbed through massive fraud.

Many less hysterical Trump supporters also embrace this mythology, despite zero evidence and almost 50 unsuccessful post-election lawsuits. But these dead-enders led by attorney Sidney Powell demand that Republicans boycott the run-offs because the system is irredeemably corrupted.

That could effectively gift Democrats control of the Senate. It’s self-defeating, but more coherent than the narrative embraced by Mr Trump and his political disciples, especially in state legislatures and the US House of Representatives – who make up the second camp.

This camp agrees that the system is indeed rigged and fraudulent, but only when it comes to Mr Trump's defeat. That somehow doesn't apply when Republicans won races on those same ballots, or to the Georgia run-offs either. Or, rather, it will apply, but only if one or both of the Democrats win.

That’s essentially the standard that Mr Trump outlined in 2016 and again this year: the system is not to be trusted unless he or his allies win, in which case it is.

Therefore, while denouncing Georgia's Republican officials, the hardware and software used, and pretty much everything else about the November election, they nonetheless strongly urge Georgia Republicans to vote on January 5. Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a key Trump ally, was asked by a Georgian why he should bother voting in a pre-determined election, which seems a logical question. "It's not decided," she indignantly retorted.

Republicans trying to make sense of this quasi-official double-speak must experience profound vertigo.

A third bloc comprises mainstream party leaders, including many Republican senators. They remain essentially supportive of Mr Trump but avoid conspiracy theories. They are clearly uncomfortable with Ms Powell’s fabrications as well as those being pushed by Mr Trump's formal legal team, led by Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis (incidentally, Ms Powell's pronouncements have led to her ousting as one of the President’s official attorneys).

The aforementioned party leaders are lukewarm, neither endorsing nor repudiating – indeed rarely mentioning – the campaign’s claims. Yet they are careful not to refer to Mr Biden as the President-elect or to a forthcoming Biden administration. Although they all know more than enough electoral college votes have now been officially certified by states to guarantee his January 20 inauguration, only 25 Republicans of 249 in Congress will concede that Mr Biden won.

Many Republican stalwarts made it clear before Mr Trump won their party's nomination in 2016 that they did not like or respect him. But they fear his political dominance and grip on their voters, so their instinct is always to humour him.

Vice-President Mike Pence appears to have effectively joined this camp, keeping a vigilant distance from the campaign against the election, which is no longer promoted under the familiar Trump-Pence banner, but now usually in Mr Trump's name only. This go-along camp is quietly preparing for life in opposition while trying not to do or say anything to annoy Mr Trump or the Republican base. "What's the downside," they ask, "of humouring him for a few weeks more?"

The fourth group of Republicans – the "personally responsible and politically vulnerable" camp – can readily answer that question: incalculable, and literally dangerous, damage is being inflicted on democracy, civic norms and a basic respect for the truth.

An attendee holds up fingers indicating 'four more years' as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at a campaign event with Senator David Perdue in Savannah, Georgia, U.S., December 4, 2020.  REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

The most important members of this fourth camp are Republican officials in key swing states who, because of their positions, are personally responsible according to state laws and constitutions for election processes.

These are mostly ardent Trump backers. But the governors of Georgia and Arizona, the Secretary of State of Georgia, and leaders of the Republican-dominated state legislatures in Michigan and Wisconsin are not merely being asked by Mr Trump for political or rhetorical support. They are being urged to break the law, betray their oaths of office, disenfranchise their constituents and take a range of unprecedented and inadmissible actions to hand Mr Trump a victory despite his defeat by over seven million votes. Long-term consequences for such actions are unpredictable but guaranteed, and possibly dire.

Despite Mr Trump’s constant entreaties, threats and attacks, no Republican-appointed judge or state-level Republican official has been willing to co-operate with him. On Saturday, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp rejected Mr Trump’s demand that he invalidate the election, incurring presidential wrath.

Even the President's own administration officials have demurred. The head of the election security agency was dismissed and vilified for calling the 2020 vote "the most secure election in American history". Attorney General William Barr enraged Mr Trump by confirming that the Justice Department found no evidence of meaningful irregularities.

Vice President Mike Pence is greeted by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp as he arrives at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The good news is that personally accountable officials have been unwilling to cheat. The bad news is that it apparently takes the prospect of major legal or political consequences to force many Republicans into the pro-truth contingent. And many disgruntled Republicans seem mainly upset that Mr Trump could be hurting the party in Georgia and beyond, not wreaking havoc on the democratic system.

It was wrenching to watch Georgia election officials, on the verge of tears, pleading with the President to stop declaring that the election was rigged because Republican officials and others could be killed by enraged Trump supporters inflamed by increasingly violent rhetoric from his key advocates.

The Georgia run-offs will provide the earliest indication of which of these Republican camps is winning and how damaging this bitter internecine conflict has become.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National