Why Republicans are becoming more extreme without Trump

Supporters cheer and wave as former president Donald Trump is introduced at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. AP Photo
Supporters cheer and wave as former president Donald Trump is introduced at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. AP Photo

One hundred remarkably successful days into Joe Biden's presidency, something unexpected and disturbing is happening within the Republican Party. During the Donald Trump presidency, Republicans drifted much further to the right than most similar western conservative parties.

Mr Trump was both a cause and symptom, mainstreaming and promoting an already-existing extremism, especially on racial issues.

Two scenarios loomed following Mr Biden’s decisive victory last November.

Mr Trump could remain a very engaged and visible party leader, and thereby extend his style of nativist and populist zealotry. Or he might fade and Republicans would begin to slowly drift back towards traditional conservatism.

Instead, an unanticipated, and more alarming, spectacle is playing out.

Mr Trump has indeed faded, although he remains unchallenged as party leader. But he is not central to the political conversation anymore, is banned from Twitter, and rarely appears in public, occasionally surfacing to reiterate false and debunked claims that last year's presidential election was stolen from him.

Yet the Republican Party has significantly intensified its dogmatism, deepened its conspiratorial mindset and continues to push traditional conservatives out of party leadership, and possibly out of its ranks altogether.

The evidence is everywhere.

The main policy goal Republicans are pursuing is a widespread effort at the state level to make voting more difficult and restrict access to elections, particularly for poor and minority voters. And by short-circuiting the power of election officials and reassigning this authority to highly partisan entities, some Republican state legislatures are adopting measures that might have allowed Mr Trump to succeed in overturning the election result.

State and federal election officials are virtually unanimous that, despite the pandemic and extreme political tensions, the November election was probably the most secure ever and saw the greatest turnout in over a century. Based on the verifiable facts, it's hard to justify a massive campaign to overhaul election laws. But the effort is actually being driven by Mr Trump's assertion that the election was stolen from him through fraud and corruption.

Initially, 30-40 per cent of Republicans said they believed him, an already mind-boggling statistic given the evident facts. Now over 70 per cent say Mr Biden didn't win honestly.

Republican state legislators promoting such "election integrity" laws are speaking as if there actually had been a serious question of fraud. But they are acting as if their political prospects depend on markedly reducing voter participation.

Some Republicans have also been working overtime to rewrite the history of the assault on Congress on January 6, with widespread claims that the mob wasn't really violent, was infiltrated by left-wing agitators, and represented patriotic and noble sentiments.

Many prominent Republicans who condemned Mr Trump for inciting the unrest immediately after the riot – including House leader Kevin McCarthy, and former governors such as Nikki Haley and Chris Christie – have essentially reversed themselves, saying he was an excellent president who deserves little or no blame for the violence.

Republicans in Congress have blocked the creation of a commission to study the attack, lest it disrupt this false narrative that is now embraced by most of their constituents. Several January 6 protesters have announced they will run in upcoming Republican primaries, boasting about their participation as a badge of honour.

Other than whitewashing the riot and restricting ballot access, with a few exceptions in the Senate, Republicans have had no credible response to Mr Biden's highly ambitious policy innovations such as his massive coronavirus relief bill or his proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

After a good deal of floundering, they are opposing the bills because of the costs. But given their disinterest in fiscal restraint while Mr Trump was president, these complaints seem especially disingenuous. Instead, Republicans have been largely focusing on a series of culture war battles and, often, conspiracy theories.

One was a ridiculous claim that the Biden administration was preparing to limit Americans' consumption of meat. Another held that migrant children were being each given a copy of Vice President Kamala Harris’ children's book.

Political parties often embrace dubious narratives to condemn their opponents. But it's usually leavened by some kind of policy agenda. At present, Republicans simply don't have one, other than continued fealty to Mr Trump as a symbol.

QAnon conspiracy endorser and nativist firebrand Marjorie Taylor Green, just elected in November, has catapulted to the top of Republican ranks because of her hyper-aggressive radicalism. Republican Senator Ted Cruz refuses to break ties with an organisation found to promote white supremacy.

The most influential media figure among Republicans is white nationalist TV commentator Tucker Carlson, who is championing the "great replacement" conspiracy theory that non-white migration is a plot to destroy western civilisation. He is even considered, in all seriousness, a potential Republican presidential nominee.

Meanwhile, life in the party is becoming almost impossible for traditional conservatives, especially those seen as disloyal to Mr Trump.

There is a renewed effort to oust the third-highest ranking Republican in the House, Liz Cheney, for her criticism of the former president and insisting that Mr Biden is a fellow American who deserves respect and courtesy.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, was roundly booed at the Republican convention in his home state of Utah. When he said, "I wasn't a fan of our last president’s character issues,” the crowd erupted, calling him "a traitor" and "a communist". His self-description as an "old-fashioned Republican" only seemed to antagonise the crowd further.

So rather than drifting back towards anything resembling traditional conservatism, despite the virtual disappearance of Mr Trump, the Republican Party is becoming more radical and conspiratorial and less rational or tethered to reality. It has become so bad that it's now almost possible to argue that Mr Trump served as a restraining, if not moderating, factor.

It's still possible that eventually, and especially after a series of additional defeats, Republicans will abandon this fanaticism and begin to return to a more rational conservatism.

But there is no sign of that now, to say the least. And as long as most Republicans are willing to insist that they haven't lost but were cheated, learning those lessons is going to be extremely difficult.

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

Updated: May 2, 2021 06:20 PM

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