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Are Cracks in the GOP Wide Enough to Turn Some House Republicans Against Trump?

The fracturing of the House GOP was evident in Rep. Tom Emmer leaving the speakership race hours after being nominated.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer speaks to reporters as he leaves a House Republican candidates forum where congressmen who are running for speaker of the House presented their platforms in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on October 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

After several rounds of secret voting, House Republicans announced Tuesday that they have chosen Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota as their new nominee for Speaker of the House.

However, Emmer announced a few hours later that he had dropped out of the race, having failed to secure the 217 total votes he would need on the House floor in order to win the speakership.

In the meantime, the House continues to have no speaker — and thus no way to conduct the business of government – and the GOP gives every indication of fracturing into a party at war with itself over its fundamental values and identity.

The colossal fracturing on display in Emmer’s withdrawal from the race today comes on the heels of the dysfunction that took place Friday afternoon, when hard right Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan’s candidacy for the House speakership was scuttled by his own Republican colleagues. Jordan had hoped that the third time around would be a charm, having failed to secure a majority in two earlier elections for the speakership. Instead, he got a rude awakening. First, more than two dozen of fellow GOP representatives voted against him — a higher number than in either of the previous two votes; then, in a basement session held an hour later, a huge majority of the GOP caucus voted to withdraw Jordan’s name as the party’s nominee for speaker.

Throughout the three weeks since Matt Gaetz’s defenestration of Kevin McCarthy, the GOP cracks, so glaringly revealed by McCarthy’s demise, have only grown. Major legislation — including spending bills needed to keep government open and bills related to the spiraling crisis in the Middle East — is stalled. There’s a growing possibility that, absent the empowering of Interim Speaker Patrick McHenry to do more than just open and close sessions of Congress, the government could actually shut down at what ought to be an all-hands-on-deck moment.

That Jim Jordan was ever a serious contender for a position that would have placed him second in line to the presidency after Vice President Kamala Harris speaks volumes to the extremist tendencies of the Trump-era GOP. Jordan was one of the founders of the ultraright Freedom Caucus, and to this day is one of the most high-profile 2020 election deniers in Congress. He was intimately involved in pre-January 6 planning, and the congressional committee that investigated the insurrection found that as early as November 2020, he was working the phones and meeting with figures such as Rudy Giuliani to strategize on how to empower Mike Pence to throw out Biden’s Electoral College votes in key swing states. On January 6, Jordan participated in several phone calls with Trump as the defeated president prepared to work up his crowd to try to prevent Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote. When he was asked to testify before the investigative committee about all of this, he simply refused.

Jordan’s record as a congressional pit bull for the MAGA president goes a long way to explaining why Trump endorsed him as soon as McCarthy had been voted out. It also explains why Liz Cheney warned her ex-colleagues that they would be abandoning fealty to the Constitution if they chose Jordan to be the next speaker.

But Jordan is, of course, about far more than just shielding Trump. He has also been one of the loudest voices in favor of impeaching Joe Biden — even in an absence of evidence, and even after the Oversight Committee’s own witnesses failed to come up with anything even remotely resembling an impeachable offense. And he has crafted a reputation for himself as one of the most uncompromising adherents of Trump’s America First nationalism and one of the greatest apologists for the extremist and often violent message and actions of the former president.

All of this should have disqualified Jordan from getting anywhere near the House speakership. Yet, had he and his supporters acted a bit less aggressively, had they camouflaged their goon squad tendencies just a little bit better, it’s entirely possible that enough of his opponents could have been swayed to carry him over the line to the speakership. After all, the GOP’s vanishing middle has hardly been known for its principled stands in recent years. Instead, last week, the grassroots base went on a tear, threatening numerous congressmembers, as well as their spouses and their children, with many reporting death threats against them unless they supported Jordan, and others reporting they had to call on law enforcement to provide them with additional home security because they were so terrified of Jordan’s violent fan club. It was that, at least as much as his policy extremism, that so thoroughly pissed off moderate members of Congress that they decided to buckle down and ensure that Jordan never became speaker.

And herein lies a lesson: While the GOP apparently has endless tolerance for Trump’s intimidatory tactics, for his flirtation with violence, and for his ginning up of the crowd against those he deems to be “enemies of the people,” its congressmembers don’t take it kindly when all of that wrath, that fire and fury, is turned inward on them.

Trump himself is spewing out a constant stream of threats and intimidatory social media posts. One day he implies that ex-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, ought to be killed; the next he’s attacking the judges — and even their law clerks — in the many trials that he is currently facing. Yet few GOP congressmembers have stepped into the fray to urge him to stop these calls to violence. Perhaps, now, in the wake of the threats from Jordan supporters directed against members of Congress and their families, they’ll realize the necessity to step up and condemn the violent message being crafted by their party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination.

The public isn’t a fan of the GOP dysfunction: Polling shows two-thirds of voters believe the Republicans deserve blame for congressional dysfunction — a significantly higher percentage than those who say Democrats are at fault here. Neither political party, however, is faring particularly well with the public, and many say that both parties are to blame for the dysfunction as anger builds both over gridlocked government and also ongoing economic problems such as high inflation and high interest rates.

That disenchantment with both parties and their leadership, as well as the fact that for two years now President Biden’s popularity rating has been significantly underwater, helps explain a paradox: While the public is getting increasingly irate regarding what the GOP has set in motion in Congress, at the moment that doesn’t seem to be translating into a similar rejection of Trump — despite his violent message and his trail of criminal indictments. Indeed, a slew of recent polls have shown that he is running neck and neck with Biden in the presidential contest, and one poll last week had Trump ahead in most of the key swing states. If that’s not a five-alarm fire warning for those who believe in the durability of U.S. democracy, then I’m not sure what is.

Would it be hoping too much to expect the two dozen moderate GOP congressmembers who reacted so badly to the Jordan team’s campaign of intimidation against them to also start calling out Trump for his nonstop stream of threatening messages? Would it be too much for them to hone in on the anti-democratic nature of Trump’s promise of vengeance and his willingness to tear down the pillars of the political and judicial system in order to save his own skin? Would it be too much for them to publicly state that, if Trump is the nominee, they will put party loyalty to one side and do everything in their power to oppose his election? After all, if Jordan was too extreme for them to stomach, if his acolytes’ antics were too tinged with violence, if his ongoing election denialism was too distasteful, surely they owe it to the American public to clearly and honestly explain the far greater danger that would face the country if Donald J. Trump — whose reach and ability to inspire pledges of violence is far greater than that of the would-be speaker — were to win power again.

Meanwhile, however, the House has a job to do. Somehow, it needs to find a candidate for speaker who can reach the magic number of 217 votes. The Gaetz brigade has made it clear it won’t back moderates; and now, it seems, moderate Republicans, alienated by the threats leveled against them, have decided they won’t support ultraconservatives. Could that ultimately leave the Democrats in a kingmaker role? The weeks to come are, indeed, shaping up to be interesting ones in U.S. politics.

Note: This article was updated post-publication to incorporate breaking news about Emmer dropping out of the race.

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