The GOP's can't-miss dysfunction
Democrats hold everything — except America's attention
Democrats control the White House. Democrats control the House of Representatives. Democrats (just barely) control the Senate. But America is looking at Republicans.
That's not unique to this week, in which former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial begins. The last month has seen a transition of power to the Democratic Party in two of three branches of government, but our attention hasn't necessarily transferred along with it. The GOP is confused and chaotic, and America evidently loves to see it.
I mean that with the full memetic versatility of the phrase: Some people are watching the post-Trump turmoil with relish insofar as it means ineffectual policymaking for Republicans and more wins for Democrats. Some others sincerely support one GOP faction or another. They might like emerging new policy directions — like the broadly popular child benefit idea from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — or they may share the unfounded suspicions of politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.), whose association with the QAnon conspiracy theory defined her rise to public office.
But some Americans — even some simultaneously trying to take a more substantive, policy-centric approach to political engagement — are here for the show. We've become habituated to political spectacle and oddities, and at present, the Republican Party is staging the strangest act around.
It does not appear to be a deliberate or in any sense unified project. Before Trump left office, many (myself included) speculated on where the party he co-opted would go in his absence. Now it is clear there is no plan. Elected Republicans look to be individually trying whatever seems best to them, some motivated by moral conviction, some by polling data and election forecasts, some by the prospect of national fame and infamy — attention as an end unto itself in an era when meaningfully affecting the governance of our country is impossible for most members of an ever more oligarchic Congress.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), formerly heir-apparent to the imaginary kingdom of smart Trumpism, deposed himself with a single gesture. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is busying himself with very public intra-party sniping. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is, as ever, plodding toward "as right-of-center an outcome as possible." A handful of Republicans — Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), maybe half a dozen more — have distinguished themselves for their vehement rejection of Trump. But few of their fellow partisans are willing to follow, and no wonder, when even acknowledging that President Biden won the election can earn censure from their state party apparatus. Romney's modus operandi is not widely replicable because the Utahn electorate is not widely replicable.
And as for returning to a pre-Trump style of GOP politicking, is it even possible? The Reagan-era three-legged stool has gone wobbly, perhaps beyond repair. Many Republican standbys are no longer viable. Railing against government handouts doesn't exactly work right now. No one wants to do a new Mideast war, and the extant ones are old hat. Social conservatism ain't what it used to be. So complete is the public evolution on gay marriage, for example, it's hard to believe the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide a mere six years ago.
Framing all this is the uncertainty over Trump himself. Is he coming back? Will he really run again? Must the sycophancy continue? If the party dumps the ex-president, it risks losing voters. If it retains him as its leader, it risks losing voters. The huge institutional hurdles to launching a viable third party may be the only thing keeping the GOP intact.
The resultant tumult is new wine rollicking in an old wineskin. It could explode at any moment. It's entertaining, and Americans want to be entertained. We're used to looking right for this sort of entertainment, anyway, trained by the last five years of Trump and, more generally, the different ways right and left handle themselves and are handled in American public life.
"The failure mode of right-wing is kook," David Hines recently argued at The American Conservative, while the "failure mode of left-wing is puritan." Kooks are more fun to watch, and it seems we're still watching.