The division within the Republican Party has never been clearer than it is now, but where–and why–this chasm occurs remains subject to broad speculation. In a press briefing on February 24, a reporter asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Representative Liz Cheney, the House Republican Conference Chair, a simple question: “Do you believe that former president Trump should be speaking at CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] this weekend?”
Leader McCarthy, a Trump sycophant, replied, “Yes, he should.”
Representative Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, answered: “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party of the country.”
These two contrasting answers highlight the question that the Republican Party currently faces: whether the dawn or dusk of Trumpism in 2021 lies beyond the outcome of the second impeachment trial. It is tempting to view the most bipartisan impeachment vote in the House and conviction vote in the Senate ever as the epicenter of the party’s fissure. However, what prompted the impeachment to occur in the first place is the real crux of the internal battle for the Republican Party.
President Trump laid a foundation of lies about election security and fraud to foment the insurrection that took place on January 6. His supporters–falsely under the impression that their leader had been wrongfully cheated by the institution of the American government–and their willingness to commit acts of violence on their leader’s behalf embodies the newly assumed identity of the Republican Party: a cult of personality around Donald Trump and the populist politics he brought to the White House. The traditional conservatives denounce Trumpian populism and the party’s blind loyalty to the former president. This outspoken group within the Republican Party is rather small because many elected officials fear potentially losing their careers to voter retaliation back home for going against Trump. Cheney is not one of them. The Wyoming congresswoman slammed Trump’s “absolutely unacceptable behavior” during the riot and urged her party not to “trivialize” the events on January 6. “Those of us who care deeply about our history and our future,” Cheney said, “who take our oaths and our obligations seriously, will steer our party and our nation into the future. We will right the unforgivable wrongs of January 6, [and] we will make our party worthy once again of the mantle of Lincoln and Reagan.”
The former president embodied and emboldened a populist segment of the Republican electorate that was not new to the country’s history. “Within the Republican Party, or at least since the 1960s, there has been this struggle between a much more militant, populist faction and a more moderate, traditional conservative faction,” noted Beverly Gage in an interview with The Politic, the Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy at Yale. Gage points out that both American political parties have their populist energies that are inextricably connected with the base energy of either party. Ronald Reagan, in his campaign for the White House, exploited the 1960s Republican power struggle that Gage mentioned. The Republican Party has always been in a fight between its populist and conservative parts, with its populist faction modeling more of a democratic force and its conservative faction being driven almost exclusively by the elite or the elite-minded. The democratic force manifests itself in the populist Republican electorate, many of whom adore the former president and turned out in droves to support him in November 2020. They take all of his words as the truth and deem anyone who says otherwise as a member of the “fake news media.” The traditional conservative faction consists of the elected officials in Washington who have publicly rebuked the president’s actions and words, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. After Trump’s second acquittal, McConnell took to the podium and delivered his most scathing reprimand of the former president to date. “There is no question,” McConnell asserted, “that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day [January 6].”
Ronald Reagan, known for his legacy of tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative domestic policy, was himself in many ways a populist figure, especially in his effective rhetorical skills; he unified the country with his inclusive speeches on American values that corresponded to his deep, genuine admiration for them. Populism is shaped by the rhetoric from the top. Traditionally, right-wing populism expressed itself in the many forms of the tea party, which stressed the need for limited government and fiscal conservatism. The backbone of Reagan’s populist rhetoric was his moderate, charismatic disposition, a belief in American exceptionalism, and an appreciation for immigration and diversity. He believed that what made America great was the heterogeneity of its populace’s beliefs, upbringings, and perspectives. In a 1978 radio address, he noted that the American people were not “‘the masses,’ or as the elitists would have it, ‘the common man.’ They are very uncommon. Individuals each with his or her own hopes and dreams, plans and problems and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any other place on Earth.” Because of his true fondness for the country and the people he served, Reagan successfully harnessed the energy of a similar Republican base that elected Trump in 2016 in ways that were very beneficial for the more elite-minded, conservative membership during his presidency. The one commonality between the 40th and 45th presidents was their fusion of populism and free market economics with an active style of leadership.
Though his melding of populism and conservatism is not new, Trump’s populist rhetoric was anything but the one employed by Reagan. Throughout his four years as president, Trump failed to fall in line with traditional presidential conduct and took pride in doing so. He tweeted inflammatory, racially divisive tweets, aired his own grievances more than those of the people he served, and lied incessantly, whether on social media, in speeches, or in interviews. He lacked the empathy and compassion on which Reagan built his unifying populist rhetoric. What’s more, Trump rejected Reagan’s–and his other predecessor’s–belief in American exceptionalism. If he ever championed American exceptionalism, he did so falsely. In February 2020, he stated, “The virus will not have a chance against us…. Anybody, right now, that needs a test, gets a test. They’re there, and the test is beautiful.” Meanwhile, the public health system had failed in making coronavirus testing and basic protective equipment widely available. Due to Trump’s untraditional and chaotic personal and presidential conduct, the conservative elites could not control his populism during his tenure. As such, the ranking conservatives did not achieve the same policy outcome as they did during the Reagan years. However, they successfully skewed the entire judiciary system in their political favor by using the Republican-controlled presidency and Senate to appoint hundreds of conservative judges, including three Supreme Court justices. This is in large part attributed to Trump’s reliance on conspiracy theories, divisive language, and his inflated ego throughout his tenure and their perpetuation–rather than denunciation–by sitting members of Congress.
Gage reflects that “over the last several decades, Republicans have tended to take an anti-federal stance and have wanted to restrict and constrain federal involvement in issues like welfare.” Donald Trump used this anti-federal stance as a key component of his political appeal in the 2016 primaries. By doing so, he successfully exposed and harnessed the populist forces lying dormant within the Republican base to propel his ascendance up the political ladder. His message was simple: the elites in our society are corrupt, self-interested, lying failures. He employed the traditional populist talking point about a frustration with the way institutions function and are led. Frustration with the government and how it operates exists in both parties with differing reasons for the perceived governmental dysfunction.
As perhaps a consequence of Trump’s presidency, today’s far-left and far-right factions operate in completely different factual universes. The populist left believes that more government intervention for things like health care, food stamps, and other welfare issues is lacking and must be remedied. The populist right, by contrast, traditionally advocates for limited federal government and fiscal restraint. Today, however, it inhabits a world of mistruths and conspiracies about government officials propagated by the former commander-in-chief and his enablers. Despite this populist tactic, the past four years have proven that conservatism cannot fulfill its purpose in a free society in opposition to the systems of that society. Conservatism must function to defend these systems rather than becoming its antithesis: an anti-institutional mob fed an unending supply of lies and extreme populist jargon that storms the United States Capitol. If anything can be taken from CPAC, it is that for the foreseeable future, the one-term, twice-impeached president will be the leader of the Republican Party. Listing the names of the members of Congress who voted to impeach or convict him in his speech on February 24, Trump committed himself to seeking revenge for their betrayal, not of the party, but of him. Unsurprisingly, Trump made his speech at the lie-filled, election fraud-pedaling event in Orlando about himself and his grievances. That is exactly what the Republican Party expects its future to look like and be about: Donald Trump.
There is no denying that the current Republican party identifies with Donald Trump. The former president still has an overwhelmingly loyal base, with 74 percent of Republicans wanting him to stay involved in the Party, including 48 percent who want him to continue to serve as the head of the Party. The struggle for the Party’s future identity is between the populist forces and traditional conservative forces. The members of Congress who voted for impeachment are not classified as “moderate” Republicans; the likes of Senator Pat Toomey–who, voting with the former president 85.5 percent of the time, had the eighth-most conservative voting record over the last four years–represent some of the most conservative officials on Capitol Hill. The other 16 elected Republican officials who voted for impeachment or conviction also voted in lockstep with the former president the vast majority of the time over his four-year term. It is not that these Republicans have a hidden left-wing agenda to destroy President Trump; it is that they prioritize their oaths to the Constitution over their allegiance to a political party or figurehead. As Senator Ben Sasse said in his message to the Nebraska GOP State Central Committee after being censured: “Politics isn’t about the weird worship of one dude.” The only difference between them and their Republican counterparts who voted for acquittal is the side of the never-ending power struggle they have selected: the Trump populist side of the battle, or the traditional conservative side. The party now wrestles with choosing between tethering itself to the Trump-adorned populist ideals or ridding itself of its recent populist tendencies and return to achieving meaningful, substantive conservative policy. History repeats itself, and even though the United States finds itself in chaotic, unprecedented times marred by widespread disinformation, the political climate facing the Republican Party and the country at large is certainly not an exception.