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 into such a frenzy that they stormed the Capitol, built a gallows, and chanted about hanging the vice president. Why did the repudiation instead become a rehabilitation of Donald Trump? The nominal leaders of the GOP, people like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, had the chance to snuff out the insurrectionist elements in their party — and passed it up. “Trump lost. He’s gone,” Horn said. GOP politicians, she added, “can make any choice they want to now. They are choosing lies. They are choosing authoritarianism.”
Conway said he didn’t think that Republicans believed they had a choice at all. They’d spent years fomenting the ugliest elements of the Republican base in pursuit of power, and they couldn’t stop it if they wanted. “They’ve created a monster,” he said, “that they can’t control.”
A week after the January 6th insurrection, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy rebuked Trump. McCarthy, nicknamed “my Kevin” by Trump, had been one of the many Republicans in thrall to Trump. He held his tongue when asked about the latest Trump scandal, and parroted Trump’s baseless attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election. McCarthy was forced into hiding in the Capitol complex during the insurrection, during which Trump reportedly called him to complain that the rioters were “more upset about the election than you are.” Now, McCarthy demanded Trump ensure a smooth transition to Joe Biden’s presidency and suggested censuring Trump. (Democrats instead impeached Trump for the second time.) But within days, McCarthy changed his tune. Appearing on Fox News, he mounted a tortured defense of the president’s actions on January 6th. “I was the first person to contact him when the riots” were happening, he said. “He didn’t see it. [How] he ended the call was saying — telling me, he’ll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that’s what he did, he put a video out later.” (In the same video Trump calls the mob “very special” and says that he loved them.)
This whitewashing quickly spread throughout the GOP, fueled by conservative media outlets such as Fox and Newsmax. Republican lawmakers have sought to recast the whole event — despite the staggering amount of evidence to come out of that tragedy, much of it produced by the insurrectionists themselves — as a bunch of “peaceful patriots” and harmless tourists getting harassed by the police. This mass delusion extends all the way to the top: Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader McConnell filibustered a bill to create a bipartisan 9/11 Commission-style investigation of the events of January 6th. Right on cue, Trump himself came out in opposition to the commission with the solemnity we’ve come to expect from him, blasting the bill as a “Democrat trap.” “There was an opportunity after January 6th to say, ‘Wow, what happened here?’ ” Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) tells me. “What happened at the Capitol was shameful. . . . We needed to recognize we had led ourselves down a dark and dangerous road.” Instead, he says, the pro-Trump faction clung to the Big Lie of election fraud, saying: “ ‘Well, what are you talking about? We won.’ ”
Over the winter and spring, I spoke to half a dozen moderate Republican members and anti-Trump GOP operatives to understand what had happened. One of them was Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an outspoken leader of the small but vocal anti-Trump faction of the party.
“It’s all about the money, man,” Kinzinger tells me. Trump may be underwater in the polls, but his base adores him more than ever, and that’s where the money is. Trump’s 2020 campaign raised nearly $229 million in small-dollar donations. After the election, as Trump whipped his supporters into a frenzy over phony election-fraud claims, he raised another $170 million in a few months’ time. The Trump base, in other words, is a spigot of campaign cash. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — she of the Jewish space-laser conspiracy theory — raised more than $3 million in the first three months of 2021 alone, one of the biggest sums of any House member. Kinzinger wasn’t the least bit surprised to see McCarthy visit Mar-a-Lago soon after the insurrection to enlist Trump for the GOP’s 2022 midterm efforts.
“The fastest way to get the majority back is to raise money,” Kinzinger says.
The energy in the Trump base cuts both ways. It can also be used to instill fear — fear that if you’re insufficiently loyal to Trump, you’ll face a primary challenger and lose your seat. There’s also the fear that without Trump the party loses access to all that money from the base. Rep. Meijer tells me that Trump knows that his base is where the energy is in the Republican Party. “It’s that not-so-veiled threat — or very direct [threat] when musing about starting a third party — that ‘I’ll take my supporters and walk away,’ ” Meijer says. The GOP also has four years of evidence at the ballot box to suggest that, without Trump on the ballot, the party can’t put together a winning coalition in key swing states. Look at the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won in a landslide, or the 2021 special elections in Georgia, when two Democratic candidates upset incumbent Republicans and flipped the Senate majority. “We really have an internal electoral calculus problem that no one knows how to solve,” Meijer says. For now, the solution as envisioned by McCarthy and McConnell appears to be twofold: Hug Trump tightly, and try to make that a winning coalition by locking out a lot of people who aren’t in it. In the name of “election integrity” and restoring “faith” in the system, Republican state legislators have weaponized the Big Lie by introducing hundreds of voter-suppression laws in nearly every state this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. On moral grounds, this strategy is cynical and repugnant. As a political strategy, it makes perfect sense: The base reveres Trump with near cult-like adoration, and so the only way to win is to embrace Trump and his followers while making it harder to vote for everyone else.
Sarah Longwell, a never-Trump Republican who founded the group Republican Voters Against Trump, ties together all of these forces into what she calls the “Republican triangle of doom.” “There’s a toxic and symbiotic relationship between base voters, right-wing infotainment, and the politicians,” she tells me. Tucker Carlson, Newsmax, and far-right content producers on Facebook and YouTube feed their audiences a steady stream of reactionary vitriol and conspiracy theories; the base voters, gorged on right-wing infotainment, make ever more extreme and outlandish demands of their politicians; and the politicians, fearful of losing their next primary, give those voters what they want and get rewarded with money, TV airtime, and seniority in the party.
Consider who replaced Liz Cheney as the chair of the House Republican Conference. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) was a pure product of the Republican establishment. Before she came to Congress, the Harvard graduate served in George W. Bush’s White House and worked for Paul Ryan during the 2012 presidential race. She once called herself a “big-tent Republican,” and the conservative Club for Growth said her voting record made her “very much a liberal.” But as her party bowed to the MAGA crowd, she bowed with it, defending Trump during his first impeachment trial and proving herself to be a Trump loyalist of the first order. What’s so dangerous about this toxic feedback loop, Longwell says, is that it justifies the GOP’s extreme agenda, like the need for hundreds of election-related bills solving an imaginary voter fraud. “It’s not just that it has the ability to shift perceptions,” she says. “It’s that it has the ability to create alternate realities.” A few days after the podcast taping, I flew to Texas and walked into the alternate reality that Longwell had warned me about. The conference was called Faith and Freedom. It was hosted by Brian Gibson, a fiery pastor from Kentucky who in bearing and enthusiasm resembles a Christian-right version of Alex Jones, and Matt Couch, a pro-Trump podcaster sued by the brother of Seth Rich for spreading cruel conspiracy theories. This was my chance to tap into the Trumpian base at the root, a trip to the far-right fringes to see what was coming next.
No one wore masks — or, as one of the speakers called them, “facial condoms.” (Let that image stay with you.) The conference felt like a mix between a Christian revival, an anti-lockdown protest, and a Las Vegas buffet line of serving up one conspiracy theory after another — about the pandemic (overblown if not fake), about the 2020 election (stolen, duh), about critical race theory (a Marxist communist plot). There was no disagreement about who their enemies were: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (one vendor sold toilet paper with Pelosi’s face on it) and President Biden (the same vendor sold “Fuck Biden” hats), the Democratic governors of California (“Adolf Newsom”) and Kentucky (“Führer Beshear”). They raged against the tyranny of mask mandates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and employee-sensitivity training. They cheered for cult figures like a Twitter personality named Catturd, who enjoyed a brief flurry of attention after Trump retweeted several Catturd posts about election fraud to the president’s 80 million followers.
What the attendees stood for was harder to ascertain. God, the military, the vets, sure, but little by way of policies or coherent ideologies. There was more anger directed at Big Tech than the usual bogeyman of Big Government. The through line for the weekend, as best as I could tell, was a profound sense of fear and alienation. These people felt like strangers in their own land, to borrow from the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, convinced, despite being white and well-off enough to spend hundreds of dollars to attend this conference, that their country was no longer their own. And — here’s the kicker — that elections were no longer the way to bring about change in their country. Most everyone seemed to agree that the 2020 election was one of the great crimes of all time and that Donald Trump was the rightful winner. Eric Wnuck, an Arizona conservative who had led the charge to demand an “audit” of the election result in Maricopa County, captured the mood when he claimed that a free and fair election had been “pilfered by a few deep-state politicians.” “Democracy is premised on elections and changes of government,” Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of How Democracies Die, warns. “If you have one party that doesn’t know how to lose, then democracy can’t survive.”
Wnuck wouldn’t say what the outcome of the “audit” would be, but he did leave the audience with this message: “What I believe you will see is gut-wrenching and appalling. And you will never, ever trust an election again.”
I heard similar sentiments from other speakers. A podcaster and right-wing influencer named Eric Matheny said Americans had “witnessed . . . a hostile takeover. An election stolen right before our eyes.” The country, he went on, would not be “won with elections.” Change would happen only on a cultural level, within families, in the church, with neighbors talking to neighbors. (His motto, he said, was “Always be red-pilling.”)
This idea wasn’t shared by all the speakers. Dr. Cordie Williams, a right-wing podcaster based out of California, urged those in the audience to run for office themselves. It was up to them to take back their communities and push back against the Marxist-socialist-communist left. “We can’t wait around for a Q or somebody to come and save us,” he said. But the crowd seemed to gravitate to people like Wnuck and Matheny, the ones who cried fraud and said elections couldn’t be trusted. And why wouldn’t they? If you believe the 2020 election was a vast criminal conspiracy, why would you ever put your trust in another election? But that raises a separate, more troubling question: What happens when a large swath of the population refuses to accept the results of elections?
“The Republican Party is now a countercultural movement,” Madrid tells me. When he joined the Republican Party in the late 1980s, it was the establishment. Its intellectual forebears were George Will, William F. Buckley, Thomas Sowell. Today, the party is a reactionary force fracturing into different pieces. “The defining feature of the ascendant wing of the party is that there is no philosophy. It’s devolving, atomizing, and factionalizing,” Madrid says.
Instead, what unites the party is a resistance to change, to modernity, to the future and any sort of progress. You get ahead in today’s Republican Party by performing your opposition to the Democrats, sticking it to the libs, and raging against a “woke” culture that wants to cancel Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head. Catturd is closer to the power center of the Republican Party than either Mike Madrid or Jennifer Horn, Peter Meijer, Adam Kinzinger, or Liz Cheney. It’s not hard to see the Republican Party for what it is. Base voters fueled by disinformation. Dissenters treated like apostates. Party leaders who would rather have power in an authoritarian America than fight for principle in our democratic republic. The Republican Party has arrived at a place where it refuses to lose and will change the rules to ensure that it never does. So what happens in a two-party system when one of the major political parties gives up on democracy?
I put this question to Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard professor and political scientist who co-authored the book How Democracies Die and who studies the rise and fall of democratic governments. Since World War II, in countries with coalition-style governments, nations such as France and Germany, moderate parties team up to beat back extremist movements. That’s not possible in a two-party system like ours, Ziblatt tells me, but up to now the two parties have done a good job of containing and marginalizing the extremist elements in their ranks. Ziblatt acknowledges that the Republican Party has now ceased to do that. Now, there is no position too contorted, no hypocrisy too craven in the name of pleasing the base and acquiring power. Even if that means attacking bedrock American principles like free and fair elections. “Democracy is premised on elections and changes of government,” Ziblatt says. “If you have one party that doesn’t know how to lose, then democracy can’t survive.”
Rep. Meijer has a more pointed response when I ask him the same question. “I think it’s not being too much of a Cassandra to say I am very worried about excusing and normalizing political violence,” he tells me. There was “a low to no probability” that we would see another mass insurrection like what happened on January 6th. But he believes there is a high probability that individual members of Congress could be targeted for intimidation and acts of violence. “I don’t put it beyond the realm of assassinations,” he warns me.
Meijer goes on, “I can’t help but think that some elements of my political party would rather have the loyalty of a few thousand militants — they would rather maintain that — then be able to persuade tens of millions of voters. That, to me, is a chilling recognition.”