There are two Republican centers of gravity coming together in and around Washington, D.C., and on spec, they couldn’t seem to be more different. On one side are the truckers currently engirding the D.C. metro area in an attempt to create some chrome-heeled Woodstock dystopia where everyone took the brown acid despite repeated warnings. Back in town, the ultra-conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is organizing its annual World Forum confab, which will be held this weekend down at posh Sea Island, Georgia. The event will feature a constellation of Republican leaders and deep-pocket conservative megadonors, all looking to rub their collective woes together regarding the state of political play. They would have the upcoming midterms by the throat, they fret, but for that headless orange chicken down in Florida who keeps running and running because it refuses to believe it’s already dead.
AEI and its upcoming forum have positioned themselves as vividly Not Trump. The former president was pointedly not invited to the affair, and among the key speakers will be Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has finally made his distaste for Trump very public. Also speaking is Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who made Trump’s all-time shit list for doing his job by certifying President Biden’s win in that state. Several other Republicans of like mind are expected to speak, and the affair may serve to formalize the expanding rift between the old-line party and its Trump-obsessed base.
Take a drive out of town and find that base in its truck convoy, however, and pumping up Trump appeared to be the last thing on most everyone’s mind. Historian Terry Bouton explored the trucker encampment at the Hagerstown Speedway, and was struck by how little politics was discussed. “Lots of Trump gear, but no one was talking about him,” he noted. “Not one person mentioned Russia or Ukraine all day.”
So what do they want? The whole trucker protest convoy idea began in Canada (funded with U.S. donations) with a fight against vaccine mandates at the border, but as mandates are rapidly going the way of the dodo, convoy organizers threw wide the doors for any and all far right ultra-nationalist white power super-conspiracy advocates to join in, the fringe of the fringe of the fringe as it were, and the scene got weird at warp speed. Weird, and more than a little ominous.
“This was a movement-recruiting event,” reported Bouton. “It was designed to draw people in with a family-friendly, carnival atmosphere. Free food & drinks. Booths, activities, a prayer tent. Revving engines, honking horns, bright lights. ‘Sign My Truck’ with sharpies. T-shirt and flag vendors. There was a clear attempt to appear more mainstream. The focus was a big-tent ideology of ‘Freedom.’ Although started by anti-vaxxers, it was re-framed as ‘protecting our liberties’ in ways that allowed for diverse beliefs. Christian Nationalism mixed with QAnon spiritualism.”
“Christian Nationalism mixed with QAnon spiritualism” is what passes for “diverse beliefs” on the trucker circuit these days, I guess. No such wildness over at AEI, of course. Having a CEO who once worked for Democrats is about as far outside the lines as those folks tend to go. These are serious people about serious business.
AEI, you may recall, is the birth mother of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), another right-wing think tank that most every George W. Bush-era neo-conservative called home at one point or another roundabout the turn of the century. Their blueprint for the future, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” envisioned a far more militarily muscular U.S. bringing “Pax Americana” to the Middle East. All they needed was a catalyst, “a new Pearl Harbor” as they put it, and on September 11, 2001, they got exactly what they needed.
In short, this — all this, every bit of this, this ash pile we occupy, this careening juggernaut, this doomed and double-damned moment, right now — is the future PNAC and AEI set up for us 20 years ago. Soon, they’ll be down at Sea Island taking in the ocean air and plotting their next big play… and that right there is the THUD in the middle of the sentence: What play can they plan for with Trump bashing around, and with the GOP base seemingly in his grasp?
To be sure, certain high-profile GOP figures are slipping away from Trump. Mike Pence, who can easily be mistaken for a glass of low-fat milk if the prescription on your glasses is out of date, smacked Trump around at a GOP fundraiser the other day. That’s like getting attacked by a footrest.
Mitt Romney, who spends most of his time doing an excellent “Sam the Eagle from the Muppet Show” imitation, channeled some undistilled Don Rickles in his recent takedown of Trump’s most ardent allies within the party. Trump’s only response has been incoherent yelling about the fact that his precious new social media platform works almost as well as two tin cans tied together with string (and yes, these are a few of my favorite things). When Pence and Romney get bold, it’s hats over the windmill.
The Not Trumpers have their work cut out for them, because it isn’t just QAnon spiritualists flooding his corner. As recently as a week ago, a large majority of all Republicans want him to run again in 2024, preferring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the nominee only if Trump stays home. Many of those still believe the big election victory lie Trump has been weaving for more than a year now. Much of the GOP has become like one of those bouncy rooms that gets caught in the wind and goes flying over the horizon with the kids still inside; McConnell and his ilk will need some long ropes to haul the thing back down to Earth.
Right now, the GOP is a loaf of bread split down the middle. One half is stale and moldy, the other hot and filled to bursting with grubs and mealworms. The two have existed together, and even thrived, for a very long and damaging time.
The party is still mightily dangerous; even in its separated state, it is an ultimate menace. If it is repaired, the rest of us will lose badly, perhaps mortally. If it is not, it is still a ball of bad trouble. This bears watching.