A day after the assault on the Capitol last week, a shaken Republican member of Congress told Yahoo News that those in the party who want to rid the GOP of President Trump and his influence must wage an “insurgent” campaign to do so.
On Wednesday, the Republican leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, took what might be steps toward that goal, even as some in his party are choosing to more directly confront Trump.
McCarthy, the House minority leader, opposed the impeachment vote, but he called for the House to censure Trump and rejected the alternative reality that many Trump supporters live in. McCarthy forcefully and clearly said that Democratic President-elect Joe Biden won the 2020 election. He also rejected false conspiracy theories about antifa activists assaulting the Capitol and held Trump responsible for the violence.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” McCarthy said.
Many critics will point out, rightly, that in the days after the 2020 election, McCarthy repeated the lie that Trump had won and for two months did nothing to tell Republican voters the truth. Even more outrageously, last week he voted to reject the election results just hours after the mob of Trump supporters assaulted the Capitol.
It’s possible, maybe even likely, that the only way for the GOP to reject Trumpism is to do so forcefully — as Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, and nine of her GOP colleagues did in voting to impeach Trump — and that McCarthy’s gambit on Wednesday is aimed only at maintaining power.
But even if McCarthy is animated just by self-preservation, there is pressure on him to distance the GOP from Trump that plays into that desire. He is facing a revolt among corporate donors who are outraged by his vote to throw out the election results last week. If he wants to win back the House in 2022 and become speaker, McCarthy needs that money.
Corporate donations power political leaders like McCarthy, who use the funds to support Republican campaigns across the country through TV ads as well as other costs such as staff and travel. He plays kingmaker, and cements the support of members of Congress who then vote for him in leadership elections.
But even in the money race there is counterpressure: Large amounts of money now come also from small donors, which is antiestablishment money for the most part.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how grassroots purists and extremists now control much of American politics — in both parties to some extent, but in the Republican Party in particular. Many Republican members of Congress have been afraid to speak out against Trump or to vote for impeachment because they fear they and their families might be harmed, or even killed, by Trump supporters.
This terrible reality was reported by numerous press outlets, and the Republican member of Congress who spoke to Yahoo News last week expressed that same fear of bodily harm, or even death, for those who might oppose or seek to impose consequences on a lawless and lying president.
This congressman argued that a frontal assault would only make Trumpism stronger, because current GOP officeholders who vote for impeachment will lose their seats to more radical and far-right Republicans in party primaries. And due to a combination of political polarization and gerrymandering that has made so many congressional districts either safely Republican or Democratic, primaries are often the only races that members of Congress have to worry about.
“People don’t seem to understand that the only election that matters is your primary,” Brendan Buck, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, told Yahoo News.
That’s a structural reality of American politics that is at the root of many problems. And it is a far bigger issue in the House, where members face reelection every two years.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., was unusually frank in a speech on Wednesday in admitting this. “I’m going to vote against impeachment, and that’s going to give me credibility at home with my base,” he said, adding that he hoped to use that credibility to tell “hard truths” to his voters.
But in the Senate, 18 Republicans will face voters in 2022, a factor that will weigh on them as they consider whether they vote to convict Trump after the House impeached him on Wednesday. Senate Republicans will also look at the paltry number of their House colleagues who ultimately supported impeachment, as well as the right-wing attempt to drive Cheney out of her leadership role.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still able to organize enough Republicans to vote to convict Trump and prevent him from ever holding public office again. But it will likely be an overwhelming rush to dump Trump among the Senate GOP or only a trickle, since there is safety in numbers.
For example, if Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., were to vote to convict as part of a larger group, that would give him some insulation from the primary challenge likely to come from hard-right Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in the 2022 Republican primary. A Rubio adviser talked with Yahoo News over a year ago about how the pr Gaetz is a constraint on Rubio’s ability to vote and speak the way he would like to.
Buck said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, “This is perhaps a clarifying moment, but it’s not going to be a type of clean break that people want. And I think we need to be somewhat guarded in what we think is reasonable to expect in terms of change.”
“It is very easy to just tell people whatever they want to hear, and you get away with it. You really do. You get away with it. You get reelected,” Buck said. “I think this is one of the reasons that Donald Trump was able to take over the party in the way that he did, because for 20 years figures on the right … have been lying to voters about their own party. It’s a phenomenon that exists in [the GOP] much more than in the Democratic Party.”
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