The essay described congressional extremists, their rejection of truth, a party turning into authoritarians or “an apocalyptic cult.” It bore a striking headline:
“Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”
It didn’t mention Marjorie Taylor Greene, the deadly January 6 insurrection or Donald Trump’s Big Lie. In fact, the words “Donald Trump” did not appear at all.
Published in 2012, that Washington Post piece demonstrates more than the foresight of its political scientist authors, Tom Mann of the center-left Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the center-right American Enterprise Institute. It shows the disease within the Republican Party had spread long before Trump metastasized it.
Their conclusions – that the GOP had become “ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition” – did not gain wide acceptance then. Many journalists joined leading Republicans in dismissing them.
“Ultra, ultra liberals” whose views “carry no weight with me,” sneered Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
“I thought they overstated things,” Republican Charlie Dent, then serving his fourth term in the House from Pennsylvania, recalls now.
“People like me were thinking, ‘Yeah, there are some kooky people around, but c’mon,’” says William Kristol, who was then editing the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. With John Boehner as House speaker and Mitt Romney winning the GOP presidential nomination, Kristol saw the Republican mainstream still in command.
All have since gotten slugged by reality. What ailed the party in 2012 has worsened.
Kristol’s magazine, having diverged from Trump-era orthodoxy, no longer exists. Of his earlier sources of reassurance: Boehner fled Congress to author a book decrying his colleagues’ dysfunction; Romney has become a pariah as the only Republican senator who twice voted to convict Trump on impeachment charges.
Dent, now a CNN political commentator, quit the House after moderates like him became further marginalized. McConnell was shaken by violence inside the US Capitol for which he declared the defeated Republican President “practically and morally responsible.”
“I don’t get much satisfaction out of being right,” says Mann, now retired in California. “A country, and a system, like ours has to have two strong governing parties. The fact is, we only have one.”
“It’s a grim picture for the foreseeable future,” adds Ornstein. “We have a serious risk of losing our democracy.”
GOP office-holders keep showing why.
Denying the scientific facts of climate change no longer suffices. House Republican have made honesty a disqualification for party leadership.
They fired Rep. Liz Cheney as conference chair for refusing to obscure the truth about President Joe Biden’s victory. Most rank-and-file Republicans, polls show, believe Trump’s lies about voter fraud.
Mann and Ornstein described party leaders’ refusal to rein in lawmakers like Allen West of Florida, who falsely asserted that “78 to 81” congressional Democrats were communists. Out of Congress and relocated, West now chairs the Texas GOP.
It’s gotten worse
His 2021 successors have grown loonier. Greene won a House seat from Georgia last year after expressing support for bizarre QAnon fantasies, which link Democrats with pedophilia.
When Mann and Ornstein wrote their 2012 piece, Tea Party Republicans had menaced the American economy with a debt crisis. But this year’s insurrection created physical menace – for Capitol Police, lawmakers of both parties, even then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Cheney warns that Trump may incite further violence. She told CNN’s Jake Tapper that House GOP colleagues voted against impeaching Trump because they were “afraid, in some instances, for their lives.”
A White Missourian who gained fame by pointing a gun at racial justice protesters got invited to speak at Trump’s 2020 nominating convention; he has now launched a GOP Senate candidacy. An AEI poll this year found most Republicans agree “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
What alarms them are the evolving demographic, cultural and economic realities of 21st century America. The country continues to become less White, less Christian, less financially rewarding for workers without advanced technical skills or higher education.
The GOP voting base is increasingly dominated by older, blue-collar, evangelical Whites in economically lagging towns and rural areas. Conservative media outlets stoke nativist anger over their loss of status and power.
Democrats have drawn more popular votes in seven of the last eight presidential elections. So in key states like Georgia, using Trump’s lies as fuel, Republicans now seek new election rules to help them win.
“I don’t like where we’re heading, but don’t think it’s inevitable that we get to that terrible place,” says Dent. He recently joined more than 100 prominent Republicans in a letter imploring the GOP to “rededicate itself to founding ideals.”
“For the people who want to tell themselves that the Republican Party’s salvageable, there’s always just enough hope,” Kristol says.
McConnell’s January condemnation of Trump suggested the most powerful remaining Republican in Washington might chart a new path. After the insurrection was quashed, the seven-term Kentucky senator angrily assailed “criminal behavior” that “tried to disrupt our democracy.”
But like his House counterpart Kevin McCarthy, McConnell cares most about recapturing the majority in next year’s elections.
For obvious reasons, Trump opposes the House-passed measure creating a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection. Dependent on the former President’s support, McCarthy led the overwhelming majority of House Republicans last week in voting no.
McConnell, too, fell in line.
“I’ve made the decision to oppose the House Democrats’ slanted and unbalanced proposal,” he said. That virtually ensures it will die in the Senate by Republican filibuster.