Where are they headed in the wake of the Trump Era
By Margaret Foster
Donald Trump is many things. He is not a prototypical Republican, however. In the aftermath of his presidency, the Republican Party’s traditional values of limited government, diplomacy and morality seem to be misplaced and nonexistent, leading to a major fracturing within the party between pro-Trump leaders and those who wish to corral the party back to its old ways. Fracturing, in this sense of the word, can be defined as “to split or fragment as to no longer exist.” While the Republican Party still stands today, a few major phenomena of the 2020 election cycle—including discourse following the election, the January 6th insurrection, and Trump’s second impeachment trial—have splintered the Republican Party beyond repair and fundamentally shifted the party’s norms.
Following the 2020 election, discourse within the Republican Party was completely fractured. A handful of Republican elites, including Trump himself, spouted claims of voter fraud on national television, while other Republicans from key swing states stood firm in their beliefs that this election was in no way fraudulent. The latter group includes Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, a conservative Republican who won his seat with an endorsement from President Trump. This election season, however, Raffesnberger went against Trump’s wishes and certified Biden’s victory in Georgia.
The fractured discourse concerning the election’s veracity has much to do with the unusual nature of this election cycle: when events differ from the norm, it is much easier to propagate conspiracy theories and lies due to inconsistencies with prior events of the same nature: in this case, elections. There were far more mail-in votes this election cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many Democratic leaders pushed their constituents to vote via mail-in ballots and at early in-person polling places in order to limit the spread of the virus. This created an outlet for some Republican leaders to claim that mail-in ballots were somehow being miscounted, even while other leaders in their same party stood firmly against these claims. Meanwhile, throughout this fractured discourse within the Republican Party, Democrats were able to unite behind one cohesive stance: this election was in no way fraudulent. This group cohesion among Democrats fostered a sense of unity within the party, contrary to Republicans, because of the fact that everyone in this ingroup had a common goal in mind. During the primaries, Democratic ingroup identity was far more splintered as the party debated policies; however, this ingroup identity coalesced into a unified entity once the primaries ended. More liberal Democrats claimed that they “settled for Biden,” showing a willingness to sacrifice any qualms they had with his agenda in order to help their ingroup win the election under a unified front to defeat Trump.
Like a ticking time bomb, fracturing within the Republican Party crescendoed into the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol Building. Republicans, acting in rebellion against Vice President Mike Pence’s willingness to certify the election’s results, interrupted this joint session of Congressto hunt down their own party leaders, a clear sign of fracturing within the party. In the aftermath of the event, Democrats coalesced under a sense of unity, looking down upon Republicans as the “broken” party to which these insurrectionists belonged.
Among Republicans, however, discourse following the insurrection was far from aligned. Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL) tweeted on January 7th that “evidence (is) growing that fascist ANTIFA orchestrated Capitol attack with clever mob control tactics.” Representative Brooks was willing to place blame on anyone but his ingroup, removing liability from Trump supporters by creating false narratives that they were not actually the ones who stormed the Capitol.
A split in Republican leaders’ perspectives concerning this event became clear as more moderate Republicans, such as Mitt Romney (R-UT), publicly condemned all who were complicit in the insurrection, including not only the violent, disrespectful acts of the revolters, but also the Republican congresspeople who repeatedly falsely claimed that this election was fraudulent. It is evident that there is a divergence forming in the Republican Party as their norms have evolved following the Trump presidency: some Republicans, like Romney, want to cling to old-school Republican ideals associated with the Reagan and Bush Administrations, such as civility and diplomacy, while others, such as Brooks, are shifting towards “Trumpian” values, including brashness and incivility. This inability to agree upon what the Republican Party stands for today is arguably what is contributing most to the party’s fracturing.
After the January 6th insurrection, Republican leaders continued to diverge from one another while Democratic leaders strengthened their unity throughout Trump’s second impeachment trial. If we define party unity as unilateral support, the Republican Party in the final days of Trump’s presidency was far from unified: ten Republican congresspeople voted to remove him from office. While ten votes perhaps does not seem like a substantial number, it was the most members of a president’s own party to convict in American history. Whether or not this divergence from party norms was a psychological reckoning with the effects of Trumpism and the party’s new agenda, or simply a politically-calculated move to win votes in the future, it cannot be denied that Republican leaders are not in complete agreement on the party’s identity, intentions and prospective actions.
On the other hand, Democratic leaders were in thorough agreement during Trump’s second impeachment trial. Making poignant appeals during depositions and in public statements, the party’s group-level emotional grievances fostered a sense of unification due to shared trauma.
Democrats saw this event as an attack not only on themselves, but also on the very existence of our democracy, and used the impeachment trial as a way to air these grievances to the American public. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made many emotional appeals during his impeachment speech, comparing the January 6th insurrection to other days of national atrocities, claiming that
“January 6th will live as a day in infamy in the history of the United States of America.” While we are unsure as to whether or not the Republican Party’s fracturing due to these components of the 2020 election cycle will result in the party’s crumbling, it seems to be heading in that direction unless Republicans take time to regroup and reclaim their core values. Now, all of this is not to say that one party’s fracturing alongside the other’s unification is in any way a satisfactory phenomenon: the two parties are still divided against one another at unprecedented levels. Additionally, if one looks to the history of the respective parties’ unification and fracturing, it is clear that the party which is on the “defensive” end, or the party that does not control the executive branch or a majority in congress, will strengthen and unify a common enemy—namely, the majority party. While I argue that this occurrence is why Democrats were able to coalesce during the Trump Administration, it was also present among conservatives during the Obama Administration, as seen by the formation of the anti-Obama Tea Party movement which protested against his increase in federal tax rates. If history repeats itself, as it tends to time and time again, it is likely that the Republican Party will consolidate and the Democratic Party will begin to fracture under the newly-unified Democratic control of the Presidency, Senate and House.