The Death of the “Moderate Republican”
Top Stories of the Year: #3
This week, I’ve been counting down the top stories of 2023. At #5 is the center-left’s sudden interest in supply-side economics. At #4 is the widening and intensifying of the global contest between liberalism and authoritarianism. That brings us to top story #3, which is the completion of the Trumpist takeover of the Republican Party.
Special Holiday Rate
But first a note on renewals: I’m still getting a few questions about this, and the way Substack handles subscriptions is still kind of new for all of us, so I wanted to clarify again. The way I was originally doing my 10% off Holiday Sale on subscriptions was being applied by Substack only to new subscriptions, so I fixed that by simply reducing my subscription rate by 10% off across the board, now through the end of the month. If you have authorized a renewal for next year, it will go through at the sale price.
This means that any way you subscribe over the holidays will get you the discount.
The #3 story of the year begins with one struggle by the Republican majority in the House to elect a speaker,and ends with a second, even more confused struggle—the beginning and end of Kevin McCarthy’s brief, unhappy tenure in that office. (Don’t worry about McCarthy; he is already cashing in as a lobbyist.)
What is extraordinary about this story is that the Trumpist, election-denying wing cost the party dearly in two elections—one in November 2022, one in November of this year. Yet through both losses, its power has only grown.
I first noted that pattern in response to the speakership battle in January, when it was the radical Trumpists who held up McCarthy’s selection and extracted key concessions. Here is my best explanation for it.
This reminds me of a phenomenon you sometimes see in cults: A charismatic leader’s big prediction fails—for example, the end of the world refuses to arrive, resulting in a “Great Disappointment”—which seems as if it ought to disillusion his followers, yet it actually makes them more dogmatic. One reason is that even as the movement dwindles, the truest of the true believers all remain and form a larger portion of what’s left. There are fewer sparks of intellectual independence left to moderate the fanaticism.
Something similar has happened to the Republican Party. November’s result should spur them to make a clean break with Trump and the MAGA movement. But the same result leaves them so weak, with such a narrow majority, that they are more dependent on their crackpot fringe. It also leaves them with a habitually weak and irresolute leadership that is less likely to fight back. Meanwhile, the mavericks and independents who could pull them out of this mess have all been shown the door.
I then observed:
This kicks off a year in which the great challenge for the Republican Party will be to find its way back from the wilderness and from the disastrous experiment of the Trump years. It is not off to a promising start.
It came to an even less promising end.
A few months later, Trump was slapped with one of his most serious indictments—and thereby sealed his total dominance in the Republican primaries. That pattern reflects a wider problem with the conservative movement. After years of decrying the left’s obsession with victimhood, they have themselves succumbed to it.
[F]or all his talk of winning, Trump thrives on losing. And that’s because victimhood is the new moral currency on the right….
Republicans look at Donald Trump and see someone who is the beau ideal of aggrieved victimhood. This is why all the narratives about how “the walls are closing in” on Trump never seem to come to anything. The “walls closing in” is not a problem for Trump; it’s his brand. The more Trump is embroiled in lawsuits, the more he is caught lying, the more seedy revelations emerge from his personal life—then the more he becomes the symbol of a right-wing persecution complex and the more Republicans rally around him.
In the second speakership fight, only nine months after the first one, Kevin McCarthy was booted out by a cabal of the most disreputable Trumpists and replaced with an obscure backbencher whose main qualification was his full embrace of 2020 election denial—and his movement toward a pro-Putin policy on Ukraine.
The fact that he was elected by Republicans unanimously sealed the Trumpist takeover of the party.
This is the final Republican surrender to Trump. Many of them may still shake their heads and complain privately about the insanity gripping their party—but who cares what they say in private? We are not who we tell ourselves we are in our self-exculpating internal monologues. We are what we do.
By any objective standard, there are no more “moderate Republicans.” They are all MAGA now, committed unanimously to overturning elections and overthrowing the US government.
I know there are some of my readers who cling to the political loyalties of the old ideological coalitions, and they will be shocked by the harshness of my judgment of the Republican Party. But I have become a single-issue voter, and that issue is voting itself. I insist on our right to choose our political leaders and to vote them out if we don’t like them, because this is the only recourse a civilized society has against every other encroachment on our rights.
The big story of this year is that the Republican Party has now invested everything in Donald J. Trump and the clique surrounding him. The big story of the next year will be the ways in which this proves to be a terrible decision.
Consider the big news that broke as we headed into the Christmas break: The Colorado Supreme Court declared Trump ineligible to appear on the state’s primary ballots under a straightforward reading of the 14th Amendment’s ban on public office for anyone who “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the [Constitution], or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
More about this after the break, but this sets up a big question for the new year, since there are similar challenges to Trump in other states, including some (Wisconsin and Michigan) that are usually “swing states” in the general election. There are three possible outcomes.
The Supreme Court can’t easily refuse to take this case and just let individual states rule willy-nilly about whether a major party candidate is allowed to be on the ballot.
Based on my preliminary look at the ruling, they can’t overrule the Colorado decision without very arbitrarily rewriting the 14th Amendment. There is a lot of nonsense currently being written about this, and I am looking forward to sifting through the arguments and more clearly defining the issues.
But what happens if the Supreme Court affirms the Colorado decision? Then Trump would have to be off the ballot in every state, and not just for the Republican primaries but for the general election—and we can all imagine the pandemonium that would ensue.
You can see that 2024 is going to be a very interesting and consequential year. You had better find a newsletter to follow that will help guide you through these tumultuous events.