The 45th president lost an election and incited a failed insurrection, but his grip on the GOP is absolute. What’s next for a party at war with democracy — and the future?
By Andy Kroll | RollingStone | June 16, 2021
The heretics left the champagne and orange juice untouched, but the conversation flowed freely all the same. It was a cool May morning in Washington, D.C., and George Conway, Jennifer Horn, Mike Madrid, and Ron Steslow sat behind bulky microphones in a darkened studio lit like the Charlie Rose show. Co-founders of the Trump-tormenting Lincoln Project, enemies of the recently departed 45th president, and exiles from their former home in the Republican Party, the four had gotten together to tape an episode of Steslow’s podcast. A hush fell over the studio. The filmmaker Fisher Stevens, who is making a documentary about the Lincoln Project, hovered at the room’s edges and whispered orders for his cameramen. And then there was me, perched on a tiny stool, scribbling down notes on this distinctly meta scene.
It was the first time the four Republican outcasts — only Madrid is still a registered member of the party — had gathered in the same room together, and the conversation felt like a reunion, postmortem, and group-therapy session. They had all joined the Lincoln Project to begin with, Steslow said, because they believed that Trump posed a threat not just to the Republican Party but also to American democracy. (All four have since left the group.) Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said she recalled how people accused her of overstating the threat Trump represented.
“They don’t say that now,” Conway, a corporate lawyer, writer, Twitter celebrity, and husband to former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, chimed in.
“Exactly,” Horn said. “That’s what happened on January 6th. And that’s what the entire Trump presidency was laying the groundwork for.”
Madrid, a veteran political consultant based in California, recalled the embarrassment he felt watching Trump descend the golden escalator in 2015. “For so many years, I had been saying this was not who we are as a party,” he said. But that emotion turned into anger as Trump went on to win the election. That victory, Madrid said, was “a betrayal of everything that I have spent my entire adult life and professional career working to build.” They all believed that their work for the Lincoln Project had helped to defeat Trump, and in doing so removed the most immediate threat to American democracy.
But the anti-Trump movement aspired to more than to pry Trump from office: It also wanted to break his grip on the Republican Party. But by the time Conway, Horn, Steslow, and Madrid met in Washington, they knew enough to see they had failed in that department. Suspended from Twitter, cocooned at Mar-a-Lago, facing legal jeopardy on multiple fronts, Trump “still wields formidable power over the Republican Party,” Steslow said. The Republican leadership had already announced that Trump would play a key role in the 2022 midterm elections. House Republicans would go on to purge their third-highest-ranking member, Liz Cheney, for speaking out against Trump’s crusade to undermine trust in the 2020 election result and for insisting that Trump never hold elected office again. “He was repudiated,” George Conway said. “He just wasn’t repudiated by a section of the populace that will not look, listen, and speak about the things that many of them know to be true. And so that’s the problem.”
That section of the populace Conway spoke of now makes up almost the entirety of the Republican Party. Never before in history has a former president held such influence over a political party as Trump does today, even though the party lost the White House and both chambers of Congress under his watch. He incited a violent insurrection, spread dangerous lies about the election, and violated just about every principle and philosophy Republicans once claimed to believe in. For a moment afterward, some Republicans, even ones loyal to him, repudiated Trump. Yet in the days and weeks after he left office, faced with charting a new path or reverting to Trumpism, Republican leaders as well as rank-and-file members have rushed back into the arms of the same guy who whipped his followers in