I’ve seen some circular firing squads in my time observing politics, but never anything like what is going on in the Republican Party right now. Usually it’s the Democrats ripping each other apart over an election loss, running around in circles casting blame, rushing to avoid responsibility and otherwise making everything worse. But they look like rank amateurs compared to the GOP, which is in the throes of the angriest political tantrum I’ve ever seen. I must confess to a full-blown case of schadenfreude over it.
The unexpected run of Democratic victories — they’ve already held the Senate, will come within a whisker of holding the House and have won a bunch of state-level races too — has shaken the foundations of both MAGA World and what used to be known as the Republican “establishment,” although the difference between the two is not readily discernible these days. It’s only in times of Trump scandal or electoral catastrophe that we can still glimpse some daylight between them. There’s generally a round of hand-wringing and public disavowal from some of their important thought leaders and elected officials until they get word from the base that Donald Trump is still their daddy and they fall back into line.
I’m sure you remember the last time this happened, after the Jan. 6 insurrection when Trump incited his rabid followers to storm the Capitol, with the apparent goal of literally hanging the vice president. Why, for a few days many Republicans were very upset! Even a loyal Trump lackey like South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham said, “Count me out, enough is enough,” and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared that “the president bears responsibility” for what happened. There were resignations from the Cabinet and angry denunciations by dozens of Republicans who had happily gone along with Trump’s Big Lie up to that point.
Then they got yelled at in airports by their MAGA constituents and suddenly a violent assault on their own workplace didn’t seem like such a big deal after all:
McCarthy went down to Mar-a-Lago to mend fences and kiss the ring. (No word on whether he brought some of those red Starburst candies Trump loves so much.) Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell resigned himself to Trump once again — even though he had just lost the Senate majority, thanks to those Georgia runoffs a day before Jan. 6 — and everything fell back into place. Trump was the undisputed head of the Republican Party, having cemented his leadership by attempting to stage a coup and getting away with it.
The assumption going into these midterm election was that the party holding the White House would get routed, for all the reasons everyone has already discussed ad nauseam. But it didn’t turn out that way. As I and many others have pointed out along the way, Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving — to Democrats.
If Trump had kept his mouth shut and stayed out of the Republican primaries, as Senate Republicans wanted him to, it’s entirely likely they would have done better. But then again, their own cowardice and opportunism are as much to blame as he is. They had the chance to make sure that Trump would never run again by convicting him in the second impeachment trial and they whiffed. They’re still stuck with him, and the results are as bad as they have been in every major election since 2016.
Recriminations are coming in fast and furious from the right-wing media establishment, starting with the Murdoch empire. The Fox News celebrities haven’t all abandoned Trump quite yet — they’re no doubt waiting for the smoke to clear before they decide their next moves. But there’s a shiny new candidate on the scene who also says he was called by God to lead the nation. Many in the GOP have turned their lonely eyes to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, hoping he can save the day. That of course has finally uncorked Trump’s resentment against the man he sees as his creation, which has reportedly been boiling up for years now. Trump even claimed in a post on his Truth Social platform that he had ordered the FBI and Department of Justice to intervene in DeSantis’ very close 2018 election to ensure his win. (Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly, has said that’s not true.)
Trump is righteously angry that he’s being blamed for all the nutcases he encouraged and endorsed going down to defeat, but even more upset that DeSantis is being held up, in contrast, as the party’s only big 2022 success. Let’s just say that the gauntlet has been thrown down and the battle between Trump and DeSantis is on. It’s not going to be pretty. Trump is already going dirty, apparently spreading rumors about DeSantis’ personal life.
Whether or not this will actually spell the end of Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party remains to be seen. But it’s highly unlikely that this loss will result in Trump losing control of the 40% or so of the party faithful who worship him, and that makes him as formidable as ever. All they have to do is start chasing leading Republicans through airports again and he’s back in business.
Meanwhile, back in Washington all hell is breaking loose in the Republican caucuses in both houses. Trump is blaming Mitch McConnell for losing the Senate, but somehow Kevin McCarthy (who is said to be on the horn with Trump several times a day) escapes his wrath for failing to produce the eagerly-awaited red wave in the House. Nobody knows whether McCarthy will have the votes for speaker, assuming Republicans finally manage to eke out a majority — probably by just a couple of seats — and the newly empowered Marjorie Taylor Greene Caucus is already flexing its muscles, planning to create chaos at every turn. Even if McCarthy finally gets the gavel, odds are good that he lasts less than half the time of his last GOP predecessor, Paul Ryan.
McConnell is also under fire from some senators who want to use him as the scapegoat — largely to avoid having to blame Trump. A bunch of prominent right-wing senators, including Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Senate campaign chair Rick Scott of Florida and the aforementioned Lindsey Graham, have weighed in to say that the vote for Minority Leader should wait until after the Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. It’s hard to know which of these ambitious vultures are trying to whip votes for themselves (although Scott almost certainly is) and why they think the Georgia race should be decisive, since Democrats have already won the majority. But it’s backstabbing season, and McConnell has a target right between his shoulder blades. On the other hand, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas just came out in support of McConnell, a few days after Cotton announced that he won’t run for president in 2024. The games run deep.
As you can see, the Republican Party is in serious disarray. As if that weren’t enough, Donald Trump himself says he will make a “major announcement” on Tuesday night to pour more gasoline on the fire. Word is that he will make a “very professional, very buttoned-up” speech, rather than his usual unhinged rally rant, which I have to admit is a savvy move. Trump understands that being unpredictable gets him attention and I can just see all the TV pundits declaring that he is a changed man, more sober and serious after the election debacle.
Who will be the first to declare, “Donald Trump re-established himself as the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination tonight”? And who will be the first Republican official to rush to the microphone to endorse him? (Not counting Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who didn’t even wait for his official announcement.) I think there’s every chance that the circular firing squad will miss him, as it always does. I’m not so sure that McCarthy and McConnell can survive all this, however. Somebody has to pay for this disastrous showing and I see no reason to believe that the GOP establishment has enough self-preservation instinct remaining to save itself. In a certain sense, you love to see it.