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Why the Republican Party can’t reckon with Trump

Part cynical self-interest, part fear, and part fatalism.

Mitch McConnell descending an escalator.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell makes his way to a Senate Republican policy luncheon at the US Capitol on May 18, 2021.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Most Republican critics of Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election result have gone quiet.

Sure, Liz Cheney spoke out — and ended up being booted from House Republican leadership earlier this month in spectacular fashion. But she’s the exception. The rest of the party has united around a strategy of moving on, as seen in Mitch McConnell’s newly announced opposition to a bipartisan commission investigating the storming of the Capitol in January.

For the segment of the party composed of die-hard Trump supporters, that approach makes sense. But even Republicans with deep misgivings about Trump’s post-election behavior have managed to rationalize avoiding the topic.

There are likely three reasons for this. First, there’s the cynical calculation that the GOP can best win future elections by seeming united, rather than spotlighting party divisions. Second, there’s the fear of openly defying Trump and earning the enmity of his supporters, since those deemed insufficiently loyal to the former president tend to see their jobs put at risk. And third, there’s the fatalistic view that this criticism simply won’t achieve anything, because the GOP base will trust the propaganda pipeline of conservative media and social media over their own leaders.

Indeed, a recent poll from the Democratic firm Democracy Corps, surveying voters in battleground states and districts, found that two-thirds of GOP voters there still “strongly approve” of Trump. These Trump loyalists are also among the most likely to say they’re very interested in the 2022 elections at this point. And in a CNN/SSRS poll from April, 70 percent of Republican respondents said Biden did not legitimately get enough votes to win the presidency. Faced with all this, any attempt to purge Trumpian influence from the party outright is doomed.

While the electoral incentives for the party overall are to unify and look forward before the 2022 midterms, the incentives for individual politicians can be different. Josh Mandel, a candidate in what’s likely to be a fiercely contested US Senate GOP primary in Ohio, recently told a crowd that the “election was stolen from Donald Trump.” He added: “My squishy establishment opponents in this race won’t say those words. But I will.”

So long as so many Republican base voters hold this belief, true-believing conspiracy theorists or cynical opportunists willing to pretend to hold such views will have incentives to cater to them. Meanwhile, Republicans who disapprove of Trump’s election lies will feel pressured to remain silent or risk electoral defeat. For instance, Geoff Duncan, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia who challenged Trump’s lies, said this week that he wouldn’t run for another term. The sorting process is proceeding.

This next presidential nomination could improve things — or make them even worse

Is there a way out of this downward spiral? The optimistic case offered by Republicans who dislike the trends toward conspiracism in the party is pretty simple: They want to hang on and “deal with Trump” until 2024, and hope whoever wins the nomination will help steer the party in a healthy direction.

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York laid out this line of thinking in a recent column. “There is a robust field of Republicans preparing to run. DeSantis, Pompeo, Pence, Haley, Cotton, Hawley, Noem, and several other possible candidates,” York writes. “Put them together and that is a strong group of contenders, all of whom will run on some theme of incorporating Trump’s achievements into a new kind of Republican platform.”

There’s variation among these Republicans about just how indulgent they were to Trump’s stolen election claims — Hawley was clearly the least responsible of that bunch. But most of the others indeed seem unlikely to push things anywhere near as far as Trump would if they end up losing the 2024 general election. And while they may have their faults, they seem unlikely to make conspiratorial thinking as central to their politics as Trump did.

The more unsavory tendencies in the Republican base surely won’t vanish entirely if a more traditional Republican wins. But if the leader of the party stops throwing fuel on that fire, their influence would likely weaken.

One problem is, of course, that Trump may well run again in 2024. York is skeptical that he will end up doing so, and perhaps Trump will indeed decide against it. But the uncomfortable truth is that this isn’t up to Republican elites — it really is just up to Trump himself. Given the popularity numbers cited above and how the 2016 primaries went, it’s hard to find a Republican who actually believes Trump would lose the 2024 nomination if he ran.

Even if Trump opts against running, another question is whether, if the GOP base has gone so far down Trump’s rabbit hole, another Trumpist candidate will win the base’s loyalty instead. It’s also worth recalling that the runner-up to Trump in 2016 wasn’t exactly a moderate choice — it was Ted Cruz, an eager participant in objecting to the 2020 election results. The supposedly all-star cast of other contenders, from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker to Marco Rubio, utterly fell flat.

Still, Trumpist voters will be limited to the candidates who actually run. And it’s unclear whether a would-be Trump successor would be able to match his particular star power. (One who might, Fox host Tucker Carlson, says he’s not running.) That, then, appears to be anti-conspiracy-theory Republicans’ best hope — to cross their fingers and hope the base doesn’t get the candidate of their dreams next time.