The GOP purge of Trump fails to materialize. Again.
We've heard this story before
For a brief moment on Tuesday night, it looked like there might be a cascade of Republicans abandoning President Trump and moving toward cooperating with Democrats on his impeachment, conviction, and ban from future office for his role in the sacking of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The New York Times reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "privately" believes the president committed impeachable offenses and that the process could help "make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the party." Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking Republican in the House, announced her intention, in a blistering statement, to support Trump's removal from the office, along with a handful of moderates including Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Rep. Jamie Herrera-Butler (R-Wash.)
But by Wednesday morning, it was clear: With maybe a few more defectors, that was going to be the extent of the Republican rebuke of Trump in the House. Just 10 out of more than 200 GOP members of Congress ended up voting yes on impeachment, or less than 5 percent of the House's Republican caucus. Even if McConnell refuses to whip votes for acquittal in the Senate or even votes to convict, it's not clear that he can produce another 16 Republican to get to the constitutionally required two-thirds majority. For now, the relationship of most Republicans to President Trump looks unchanged. If there is a groundswell to "purge" the president from the GOP, it has yet to materialize.
The shameful refusal of elected Republicans to put country over party is now part of a long and well-established pattern. Throughout Trump's first campaign and then his ignominious term in office, nearly every Republican has decided, again and again, that their short-term political interests are better served by standing by Trump, no matter the scale of the crime or the undeniability of the outrage. Brows were furrowed, but eventually unfurrowed after a sober assessment of the political landscape.
Whether it was the Access Hollywood scandal, "very fine" Nazis in Charlottesville, the countless obstructions of justice, the daily self-enrichment at the expense of taxpayers, and the extortion of an ally for political gain, there has always been a moment where it looked like his support was crumbling, only for his transactional alliances with GOP elites to congeal once again into a gelatinous mold of hyper-partisan mutual interest. The only elected Republicans to truly break from Trump generally did so while announcing their retirements, including former senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) or their departure from the party, like Rep. Justin Amash, now an independent.
The president's Twitter bullhorn was deployed relentlessly to hound and expel defectors, who found themselves ostracized within the party and loathed by their own constituents. His staunchest apologists concocted absurd counter-narratives whose essential preposterousness gradually faded into a hazy conventional wisdom for rank-and-file Republicans. Particularly after his first few months in office, his support among ordinary Republicans never collapsed. Even today, he is more popular than he was during the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017. A recent Quinnipiac poll put his approval rating at 33 percent overall, but still 71 percent among self-identified Republicans. Those just aren't quite jump-ship numbers for people who have staked their legacies on the president.
And so far, the idea of letting Trump "fade away" like a bad hangover has far more support in the GOP caucus than either impeachment in the House or conviction in the Senate. Wednesday's floor speeches from House Republicans opposing impeachment carried all the hallmarks of the Trump era — a combination of absurd calls for unity ("Let's look forward rather than backward"), bad-faith complaints about process ("This process was rushed!"), artless dodges ("The president didn't literally tell his minions to sack the Capitol, thus he is not culpable") and hostage-taking ("If you do this, it will make his violent supporters angrier").
Why are most elected Republicans still terrified of President Trump's wrath, even though he'll be out of office in seven days? Many, particularly in the House, fear a threatened primary challenge in 2022 from MAGA candidates seeking vengeance against any Republican who betrays the president. Even members in safe GOP districts would prefer to avoid the hassle of a serious primary challenge, and all of the attendant harassment and threats to physical safety that come with standing up to the ascendant forces of white nationalism in the party. After all, with most members of the House representing landslide districts, the average Republican fears the GOP primary electorate far more than anything else.
Given these realities, what seems more likely? A preponderance of elected Republicans joining Kinzinger and Herrera-Butler in this too-little, too-late move against President Trump? Or people like Liz Cheney getting deposed from their leadership positions, McConnell ultimately backing away from a Senate conviction, and the Trumpian takeover of the party proceeding apace? Unfortunately for the future of American democracy, the Cheney wing looks outnumbered and unlikely to win a GOP civil war unless voters themselves turn on Trumpism.
Still, some caveats are in order. If the last five years have taught us anything, it's that we should not be terribly confident in our predictions about the near-term political future. Perhaps McConnell, in the coming days, will make an affirmative effort to round up votes for conviction. While Republican senators may fear the long-term threat from Trump, the more immediate danger of falling out of favor with the minority leader could carry the day.
And while it is impossible to know what exactly is going on in McConnell's brain, he might ultimately calculate that producing enough votes to toss Trump overboard could play successfully into the public's bottomless appetite for bipartisanship and short-circuit any momentum for Democratic procedural escalation, like eliminating the Senate's filibuster rule. If convicting President Trump can produce the necessary gridlock in Congress to destroy President-elect Joe Biden's term in office and deliver power back to the GOP in 2022, he might do it.
Ongoing revelations could also play a significant role in the Senate. Last night, Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) alleged that GOP members of Congress had given the insurrectionists "reconnaissance tours" of the Capitol building in the days before the mob's deadly siege. Far-right activist Ali Alexander now claims that he was working directly with three Republican members of Congress, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona and Mo Brooks of Alabama, in plotting the attack. Despite explicit instructions to stay off of social media during the siege, GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), truly one of the craziest people ever to hold elected office in the United States, tweeted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had left the floor, helpfully narrowing the range of locations for insurrectionists who were hunting the Democratic party leader.
While we should be careful not to jump to any firm conclusions yet, it seems within the realm of possibility that insurrectionists planning to murder sitting members of Congress received assistance from inside the GOP caucus. Meanwhile, President Trump was cheering on the mob even as it infiltrated the Capitol, with some clearly intent on assassinating Vice President Pence. If operational links are established between the Trump White House, potential co-conspirators in Congress, and the insurrectionists themselves, the guess here is that this will be too much for all but the most hardened dead-enders to tolerate.
We're still a long way from proving any such thing, however, and therefore the safe assumption continues to be that President Trump will both finish out his term and narrowly avoid a conviction in any trial.