It’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) time, and Sen. Ted Cruz is knocking them dead—both metaphorically and literally—with jokes about how wearing a mask during a pandemic is “dumb.” But just because Cruz took time out to scoff at the pandemic, make fun of Bernie Sanders’ mittens, and throw in the requisite lies about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t mean anyone at the “conservative” conference has taken their eye off the Big Lie. That’s still going strong.
As the Associated Press reports, Republican officials across the nation continue to spread divisiveness and encourage violence by pushing disinformation and conspiracies that mimic, or exceed, the claims that drove the deadly Jan. 6 insurgency. Meanwhile, the vaunted algorithms behind social media are driving the evolution of these conspiracies by selectively elevating the most outrageous—and most threatening—lies. Not only are Republicans failing to condemn the assault on the Capitol; in increasing numbers, they’re supporting it.
Just as anyone could (and many did) predict, the failure to exact any consequence on Republican leaders for their part in the attempted overthrow of the government is turning what happened on Jan. 6 from a one-time tragedy into a practice run.
Not only are state and county Republican officials endorsing the Big Lie about election fraud, many of them are explicitly supporting the violent assault on Jan. 6. At the same time, Republicans in leadership positions who have repudiated either the violence on Jan. 6 or Donald Trump’s lies that made that day possible are finding themselves “sanctioned” by county and state parties, smothered in death threats, and “othered” by a party they help to lead.
Meanwhile, on the eve of CPAC, Donald Trump provided direction to the party he controls about where things are going next. As Politico reports, Trump is assembling much of the same team who saw him through the 2016 election, with Corey Lewandowski to be placed in change of a super PAC aimed at expanding Trump’s “post-presidential political apparatus.”
Notice that this doesn’t seem to be a PAC that’s directly dedicated to the election of any particular candidate. Neither it is a PAC aimed at supporting some particular set of policies. This is a pool of money that will be used to one end: expanding the power and influence of Donald Trump.
For anyone believing that Trump would quietly sit in his cart for endless rounds of cheating at golf while Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz were pushed into obscurity by a party deeply embarrassed over the end result of Trumpism … that’s not how this is going. Instead, Cruz is front and center at CPAC, Hawley is considered a top contender for the Republican nomination, and rank-and-file Republicans are increasingly ready to treat Jan. 6 like their very own Beer Hall Putsch.
The day after Trump’s second impeachment trial, Sen. Mitch McConnell stood up in the Senate to say this:
“Fellow Americans beat and bloodied our own police. They stormed the Senate floor. They tried to hunt down the Speaker of the House. They built a gallows and chanted about murdering the vice president.
They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth – because he was angry he'd lost an election.
Former President Trump's actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
On Thursday, McConnell said this when asked by Fox News’ Bret Baier whether McConnell would back Trump if he got the nomination.
“The nominee of the party? Absolutely.”
All of this may make it seem as if the question of where the Republican Party goes next has already been decided. Trump has won, McConnell has folded, and every opponent is on the run. However, that’s not quite the case.
Despite bringing out record numbers of Republican voters, Trump’s tactics of racism, misogyny, and plain old fascism also generated an even larger pushback. After his surprise win in 2016, the Republican Party under Trump failed to hold onto the House, failed to hold onto the White House, and failed to hold onto the Senate. His reprehensible statements and divisive actions have done what many thought impossible: getting young Americans to vote in great numbers. They’ve also taken what was one of the biggest Republican strongholds—the suburbs—and turned it into a new source of Democratic Party power.
As columnist Nancy LeTourneau points out, there’s a good reason that Republicans have been unable to capitalize on even record amounts of support: They simply ran out of ideas a long, long time ago.
For decades now, the central disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has been about the size and role of the federal government. When it comes to domestic politics, the GOP has promoted tax cuts in order to "starve the beast" and deregulation. In that way, Donald Trump fit right in with the classic Republican agenda.
It could be argued that this was the one achievement of Trump’s whole term in the sense of being conservative in the classical sense. Trump’s tax cut for billionaires was exactly in the wheelhouse of the battle Republicans have been stoking against the programs of FDR’s New Deal for almost a century. Only Trump forgot the bathtub. As in, he gave the billionaires their billions, and went right on expanding the government—particularly in ways that he could use as a club to support his xenophobic agenda, such as granting ever more expansive reach to ICE, or that ultimate example of a modern folly, Trump’s wall along the southern border.
In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that Trump didn’t take over the Republican Party and empty out their last stock of “things to do,” because that store was already empty before he came in. Republicans were already running on the fumes of the things they were against—women, Blacks, gays, and immigrants. Their positive ideas were down to … down to … Surely there was one. Wasn’t there?
It was exactly this factor that allowed Trump to sail in. His willingness to set aside the reedy dog whistles and blow Trump-et blasts of hate really did seem like “speaking the truth” in a Republican Party that had been saying the same things. Only quietly.
So, when CNN reports that more than two dozen members of the House and Senate are unwilling to even admit that the election results were real, and that Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States, it should be shocking. But not surprising.
It’s not so much that Trump’s lies reveal him as the emperor who was duped into strutting around naked. It’s that the Republican Party has been without any real “new clothes” for so long, they’re willing to settle for Trump. He is, in their mind, better than fading away into the history book of parties that lost their reason for being. His lies, no matter how vile, energize a base of people, while the drivel coming out of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution simply don’t.
As LeTourneau says plainly, “Republicans are rejecting democracy because they lost the battle of ideas.” They’ve lost that battle because they’re basically unarmed. Unarmed, that is, except for spreading hate and screaming “freedom” when what they mean is killing people for profit. However, despite appearances and the literal golden ass on worshipful display at CPAC, this doesn’t mean that the fight is over and that all Republicans will not file into line neatly behind Trump.
The number of Republicans who have been openly willing to defy Trump may seem small, and proposals like Mitt Romney’s child payments may seem like outliers, but these small numbers have outsized power. After all, how many times have Democrats mumbled the name “Joe Manchin” in the last month? Republicans already have that problem. Times five.
Right now, Republicans seem willing to buy into the Big Lie about the election, even at the cost of potentially destroying the nation, because they have nothing else. They’re willing to burn it all down because they realize they’re out of alternatives.
But that willingness to follow Trump is far from a guarantee that their next election, or their next putsch, will be any more successful than the last.