In March, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Axios’ Jonathan Swan that former President Donald Trump “could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it,” adding: “He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse. And he also could destroy it.” The interview is honestly a fascinating one. Just two months before, immediately after the Capitol riot, Graham appeared to be done with then-President Trump. “Count me out,” he said, “enough is enough.” Yet here Graham was in March basically conceding that Trump was dangerous but that he didn’t know how to quit him. Trump’s destructive demands and outbursts have continued — just last week, maybe-candidate Trump hinted that he might direct his fans to boycott voting booths — but party leaders like Graham remain loyal.
The party has slowly surrendered its agenda to Trump’s, even as Trump’s agenda has become steadily more dangerous to democracy.
To be fair, this has been the GOP’s pattern for more than five years now. The party has slowly surrendered its agenda to Trump’s, even as Trump’s agenda has become steadily more dangerous to democracy.
It’s worth noting that the Republican Party went into 2016 with a set of democratic principles. It passed a national platform that looked fairly similar to those of previous cycles, with calls for a limited government, a robust military, reduced business regulation, lower taxes and other long-standing party commitments. And at least up until the spring of 2016, quite a few prominent party members and conservative thought leaders strongly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump, in no small part because they questioned his commitment to this platform.
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Four years later, the party, for the first time in its 166-year history, passed no platform at all. It instead issued a brief memo saying it supported Trump’s re-election and whatever policies went along with that.
But those policy demands turned out to be few and far between. He had strong opinions from the outset about immigration and border walls, but his beliefs in other areas — health care, the social safety net, tax rates, abortion, etc. — were vague and inconsistent, and he often settled on traditional Republican stances and rhetoric.
After President Joe Biden’s victory, however, Trump has been very clear and consistent about what he believes in and what he expects his party to do: overturn the 2020 presidential election. “Either a new election should immediately take place or the past election should be decertified and the Republican candidate declared a winner,” Trump said in a statement Friday.
This isn’t just some idle wish. “If we don't solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24,” he threatened last Wednesday. “It is the single most important thing for Republicans to do.”
So is this a realistic threat? Probably. A Washington Post analysis by political scientists Bernard L. Fraga, Zachary Peskowitz and James Szewczyk found that Trump’s questioning of the ballots in Georgia after the November election most likely suppressed Republican turnout in the January runoffs, contributing to Democrats’ picking up two Senate seats and thus control of Congress, albeit by narrow margins.
Trump could do this again. As Graham noted, Trump may not have many concrete policy ideas, but he could seriously damage the party by asking his base to stay home. To quote Frank Herbert’s "Dune,” “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.” It’s entirely plausible that control of one or both chambers of Congress could come down to just a few narrowly contested seats next year.
It is notable that a relatively normal contest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is going on right now. Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and others are visiting early contest states, meeting with prospective donors and endorsers, attending traditional candidate forums and doing the other things that presidential candidates normally do at this stage of the Invisible Primary. They are also trying to figure out what the party believes in. That’s all pretty typical.
What’s not typical is a former president who makes these kinds of demands. Trump is trying to set the agenda for the party by threatening its very existence, and he has determined that the one thing it must stand for is overturning a free and fair election.
It was no small thing for the Republican Party to end up in this position, and it will be no small thing for it to get itself out of it. Assuming Republicans want to be free of this situation and want a relatively normal presidential nomination contest without serious threats of ending democratic elections (and yes, quite a few Republicans still desire this), they will need to collectively push back against Trump and refuse to support his candidacy. Doing that one candidate at a time is sure to fail, as it did in 2016. And collective action hasn’t come easily in the modern GOP.
Nevertheless, for one of the country’s two major parties to commit itself to the destruction of democratic elections is a terrifying thing for the country.