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Can the Republican Party be saved?

Why de-radicalizing the GOP is both urgent and extremely difficult.

Trump supporters in front of the US Capitol building on January 6.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

After last week’s assault on the US Capitol by pro-Trump rioters, there have been lots of calls from Republicans for “unity” and “reconciliation.”

The pleas for unity, however well-intentioned, obscure a crucial fact: This is not a bipartisan crisis. The Republican Party welcomed Trump into their ranks and indulged and excused him for four years. They nurtured the movement that led to the attack on the Capitol.

Even after the Capitol was violently sacked, even after at least five people were killed, a poll showed that 45 percent of Republicans support the invasion. That means millions upon millions of Americans see no problem in disrupting the peaceful transfer of power, a bedrock of constitutional democracy. And mere hours after the crisis at the Capitol, nearly 150 Republican lawmakers formally objected to the results of the 2020 election anyway.

So that’s where we are.

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a 2012 book that surveyed the ideological descent of the GOP from the 1950s to the rise of the Tea Party in early 2009. It’s an interesting look at how conservative politics in America has always been prone to reactionary spasms, but explains how something fundamentally different happened with the Tea Party more than a decade ago.

We discussed what made the Tea Party different from previous conservative upwellings, how it was a harbinger of the MAGA movement, how the Gingrich revolution in the ’90s destroyed Congress as an institution, and if he sees a viable path to de-radicalization for the Republican Party. Ultimately, he’s more sanguine than I am about the possibilities, but we’re equally pessimistic about the consequences if there isn’t a real reckoning in the GOP.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Would you say that the Republican Party, as it exists today, is a radical party?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Yes. As currently constituted, it’s a radical party. It’s come an awful long way from the conservative precepts and principles it used to hold. And at this point, it’s largely the instrument of one man’s will. And that man, Donald Trump, does not have a commitment to electoral democracy or the constitutional order. So yes, that makes it a radical force.

President Trump at the White House in July.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sean Illing

This is a hard question to answer, I get that, but what are the most significant forces or moments that brought the GOP to this dark place?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

I think of American conservatism as a series of lost causes that carried on well beyond their expiration date. We can start with the William F. Buckley era of intellectual conservatism in the ’50s and beyond, and that was really carrying on the lost cause of the original “America First” committee, which had tried to keep the United States out of World War II, as well as Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist movement.

The Southern Strategy that the Republican Party and the conservative movement pursued through Richard Nixon’s presidency and then into Reagan’s administration was essentially putting forward the lost cause of those who missed the old days of Southern segregationism.

So there has always been this backward-looking, somewhat toxic component of conservatism. It’s just that most of the people in charge of both the conservative movement and the Republican Party had used those energies for their own purposes to win elections, but had then controlled them, tamped them down, once the people who got to office on the strength of that grassroots movement actually took power. But under Donald Trump, they lost the balance. In fact, Trump didn’t even know enough about the Republican Party to know that he had to maintain that kind of balance, but he also was able to get people who should’ve known better to go along with him.

And that’s where we are now.

In 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (right) sits while President Bill Clinton gives a speech.
Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/ Getty Images

Sean Illing

People talk a lot about Nixon and the Southern Strategy as well as the Tea Party (as they should), but I keep going back to the Newt Gingrich era in the early ’90s. That feels like a Rubicon-crossing moment in a way that isn’t quite as clear as the Southern Strategy but every bit as significant.

Am I overstating the importance of that period?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

I don’t think you’re overstating the significance of Newt Gingrich. I recently reviewed Julian Zelizer’s book Burning Down the House, which is about Gingrich’s rise. And it doesn’t even take the story up to Gingrich’s term as House speaker. But according to Zelizer, the damage was done in the mere action of bringing Gingrich to power.

That seems more clear to us in hindsight than it was to anyone in the House at that time, because Gingrich was really a kind of a chameleon. He had, after all, been Nelson Rockefeller’s point-man in his 1968 presidential campaign for the Southern states. Rockefeller represented a liberal Republicanism and Gingrich always claimed to have had at least one foot in that kind of progressive, civil rights-minded, moderate to liberal Republicanism.

But Gingrich also was the ultimate opportunist. And by the time you’re getting into the early 1990s, the Republican Party has been kept out of the majority in the House of Representatives for close to four decades at that point. And that meant that even the comparatively moderate Republicans were willing to undertake extreme measures to get out from what they saw as a Democratic majority that had become entrenched in power and was abusing that power. So they turned to Gingrich as the only person with the charisma and ruthlessness who could bring the party back to power.

But that path back to power, for Gingrich, meant destroying Congress as an institution.

Sean Illing

That’s a big statement, so I’ll ask what you mean when you say Gingrich destroyed Congress as an institution?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Part of what Gingrich was doing was simply destroying the trust of the American people in Congress and really the government, believing that government would do the right thing. You can look at all the polls dating the decline in trust in Congress and government and really all institutions of American life and there’s a noticeable dip in the Gingrich era. So Gingrich brings these nihilistic energies to bear on Congress, and people never look at it the same way again.

You could say Gingrich is the guy who put in place this image of Congress as a “swamp,” something Trump would later play upon. And he brought a kind of partisan polarization to the institution that didn’t really exist before, or at least wasn’t a dominant strain. This is the era where Gingrich really teaches the Republicans to talk about Democrats as the enemy, as corrupt people who don’t have the interests of the American people in mind.

Ultimately, he changes the institution in ways that destroyed the possibility for comity and practical wisdom, and you can see that legacy in Congress today.

In 2009, demonstrators protest against President Barack Obama’s national tax in Staten Island, New York.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Let’s fast-forward to the Tea Party in 2009. Initially, you thought the Tea Party would be a momentary flash of populism and that the party would quickly swing back toward the center until the next reactionary movement erupted. But instead, the Tea Party mutated and permanently altered the GOP.

What was different about that moment and that movement?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Maybe because I am on the right myself, I don’t see these conservative movements as having risen from nothing, or from mere racism or other kinds of unsatisfiable grievances. I tend to see them as inflammations or infections within the body politic that need to be treated. And historically, these movements did succeed in bringing people to power who did then try to use the power of government to address some of the problems that had motivated those movements.

The Tea Party was indicative, in ways I’m not sure we understood at the time, of the growing inequality in American life and the extent to which large parts of the country felt abandoned by the centers of power, the extent to which many Americans had become alienated from their fellow countrymen and their culture. And more should have been done in the Obama years, in hindsight, to address this. And this is not an original thought to me. I think Obama would say the same.

But what the Tea Party movement tended to produce was people who were against government in toto. So when they came to Congress, they weren’t willing to learn the system and accept their roles as junior people on the totem pole and follow the advice of their more pragmatic elders and learn wisdom. They were out to blow the place up. And when they discovered they couldn’t blow the place up, they left. And the ones who stayed on really stayed on with an eye toward doing as much damage to the system as they could.

So the direct line from the Tea Party is to the House Freedom Caucus, which is the most malign element in government, I think, that we’ve seen since the period before the Civil War. And the stated enemy of the Freedom Caucus is not even the Democrats, not even the people they call RINOs. The enemy is bipartisanship and compromise itself. And when you have a significant faction that doesn’t get expelled from a party and is allowed to keep putting this view forward, it completely undermines democracy itself.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and members of the House Freedom Caucus, pictured on December 3, 2020, call on Attorney General Bill Barr to release findings from an investigation into allegations of fraud in the presidential election.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Sean Illing

What we’re seeing now may be an offshoot of the Tea Party, but it’s obviously much more violent and transgressive. Does that evolution surprise you?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

I’m surprised by the extent to which we’ve seen violence become almost part of the Republican mainstream, how at almost every Republican and conservative demonstration, you now expect to see people carrying weaponry, how it’s no longer a shocking thing when men with guns walk into a legislature and force its dissolution.

Part of this is simply the evolution over time of the Second Amendment from something that conservatives didn’t really think much about to almost a kind of sacrament. And people who might’ve had guns once now coming to identify themselves as gun owners in a way that they just really wouldn’t in the past.

But I think this also shows how there simply aren’t gatekeepers anymore, either in the Republican Party or the conservative movement. And what’s kind of surprising is that Donald Trump, who you would think would put such a high emphasis on his own political survival, never really thought, “Can I do anything to improve my image with people who aren’t voting for me?” It just didn’t seem to occur to him.

Sean Illing

Is there a substantial difference between, say, the conspiracy-tinged, anti-establishment conservatism of McCarthyism in the 1950s and the MAGA movement today? I mean, how different are the QAnon fantasies from the anti-communist hysteria?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

One of the hallmarks of these conservative movements is the idea that the United States is being betrayed by its elites. That really remains constant from America First through the McCarthy era, and through the John Birch Society and into the present day. But Joe McCarthy was not calling his followers to arms. He was saying, “Support me and I’ll make things better.” Barry Goldwater wasn’t really calling for an armed uprising. If anything, Goldwater was overly optimistic in thinking most Americans believed what he believed.

I don’t think Donald Trump conservatism is a confident conservatism in that way. It’s a conservatism very much rooted in white identity. It sees the demographic decline of whites, in particular, working-class, non-college-educated whites, as a mortal threat to the country’s identity. It can’t figure out any way to reach beyond this, even though we saw in this last election evidence that Republicans and conservatism actually can be quite appealing to minority Americans. And it’s also no longer confident, I think, that the standard processes of government and democracy can be trusted to bring about a good result.

And the feeling on the part of the most extreme Trump supporters is that you have to overthrow the government if you actually want to have the proper results. So that’s really a dangerous place we’ve arrived at.

On January 6, Trump supporters fight against police in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Sean Illing

What’s the path to de-radicalization for the GOP? Do you even see a path?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

I think we’re too close to the Capitol invasion to know what kind of an impact this is going to have on the image of Trumpism and the image of Republicanism. The Republicans’ biggest electoral vulnerability, even before Wednesday, was that it had lost the college-educated, middle-class, mostly suburban voters we talked about in 2018, who once had voted Republican fairly reliably. If Donald Trump had just shut up after losing the election, I suspect the GOP would have won those senatorial elections in Georgia pretty handily, and then Republicans would still hold a majority in the Senate.

But I think that college-educated group heard Trump’s dangerous fantasies and rejected them. And I think a lot of people that don’t fit that demographic, who have been Trump supporters, are going to look at the Capitol invasion and say, “This is where Trump’s rhetoric has got us. This is where his lies have led us. This could be the end of America. We have to do something about this.”

So I really do believe that the Republican Party may split. And even if it doesn’t split, it is going to divide into those members of Congress who will take the Trump oath, which is to say believing that the election was stolen from Trump, that QAnon is onto something real, and that malign forces are stealing America. And then there’s going to be those others, who may be just as conservative as anyone on the other side — they may be big Trump supporters, or have been in the past — but they simply can’t go along with that. And they see that as a dangerous course. And between those two outlets, there’s actually not much room for common cause.

Sean Illing

A Republican Party that divided, that dysfunctional, could well make the country ungovernable —

Geoffrey Kabaservice

I think it’s very possible that there could be someone who will emerge from the Republican ranks who will understand that Trumpism is leading the country into destruction and that people like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are assassins of democracy rather than its saviors. And they’ll understand that you actually have to make a stand here. And that’ll be good for their careers, personally, but it’s also ultimately good for the Republican Party, because the GOP now has to live down what just happened. But having said that, clearly there’s also a large segment of the party that prefers armed violence to democratic outcomes, and how you get beyond that is a very difficult question.

Sean Illing

What becomes of the country if the GOP can’t, for whatever reason, de-radicalize?

Geoffrey Kabaservice

Again, I hope it’s not a dodge to keep going back to history, but a majority of Americans supported the America First position prior to December 7, 1941 [the day Pearl Harbor was attacked]. If a vote had been taken on December 6 as to whether we should defeat Nazism and Japanese imperialism, I think Americans would have voted overwhelmingly against it.

Once the United States got into WWII, you would have expected FDR to call for healing and unity. But in fact, Roosevelt attacked the most prominent isolationists, calling them the new “copperheads.” Copperhead was the term for Democrats who still supported slavery and the Southern cause in the wake of the Civil War’s outbreak. Roosevelt correctly intuited that isolationists had to be completely defeated at that moment, not made peace with.

Now is the time to say no, to take a forceful stand against Trumpian neo-fascist opposition to democracy and the constitutional order, to say that we can’t permit this to go on anymore and that we have to anathematize those who believe otherwise. And that means marginalizing the QAnon followers and the people insisting the election was stolen. It means legal action against the people who invaded the Capitol and those who gave them support. And ultimately, it requires a forceful military and police response to these kinds of disorders and attempted overthrows of the government.

None of this is to say that we’re in for happy times. We’re not. But I’m enough of a Christian to remember the line about Christ bringing not peace, but a sword. And I think that probably is what’s going to have to happen to get past this dark period.

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