It is not as if the Grand Old Party is in tatters, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the party is being pulled in at least three directions and with a common denominator: how to stay relevant in the Congressional elections of 2022 first and later the Presidential polls of 2024.
Party elders—if there are any left—are trying to reconstruct the events leading to this dismal state of affairs; whether it had been prudent to have put former President Donald Trump on the ticket in 2016 and after his win whether to have sufficiently reined him in, if that was at all possible. So much so, after four tumultuous years, very few are looking to define Trump’s legacy on the Presidency and Republican Party; rather going on an overdrive to stem the fallouts of a disastrous last few weeks.
The groundwork to the scandalous events of January 6, 2021, when all hell broke loose at Capitol Hill as extremists and white supremacists laid waste to Congressional complexes, was laid on September 29, 2020 at the time of a chaotic first debate between Trump and his Democratic opponent Joseph Biden. Asked to condemn white supremacists, particularly an organization called ‘Proud Boys’, Trump first hemmed and hawed but when pressed said, “Who would you like me to condemn? Who? Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” words that were taken by the outfit as some kind of order to go after the left wing. In fact, the organizer of Proud Boys, Joe Biggs, is said to have posted a message essentially saying that President Trump had “basically said to go f*** them up”.
In the aftermath of November 3 elections and with Trump screaming vote fraud, Proud Boys and other extremists took up the job of peddling lies, misinformation, and disinformation of Trump and obligingly descended on Washington DC on January 6 when the clarion call went out to Vice President Mike Pence to reject the Electoral College results on the preposterous claim of the then President that as the chief presiding officer Pence had a constitutional duty to do so. Pence refused and in the violence that unleashed, five persons including a Capitol Hill police officer died. In fact, reports are now surfacing that some of the hoodlums involved in the rampage inside the House of Representatives and Senate buildings may have been given a prior “tour” of the complexes by people close to Trump.
There appears to be a three-way search for directions within the Grand Old Party and without any input from the former President in the absence of his social media handles, especially Twitter.
The first group of Republicans are targeting those 10 House members who voted to impeach President Trump; and as a way of retribution efforts are on to target these dissenters in the primaries of 2022 so as to send a clear signal to others. The content of this message is said to be so powerful that some of those who had dissented with the party are said to be having second thoughts and a few others are said to be reaching out to the former President directly by making contacts with him at his retirement villa at Mar-e-Lago in Florida.
The second group of Republican legislators are said to be focused on the second impeachment of the President itself, as a way of shoring up the electoral chances in 2022. In fact, the first attempt in the Senate to shut down the impeachment process on grounds of constitutionality was defeated with five Republican Senators joining their Democratic colleagues to defeat the motion.
The Grand Old Party now wishes to ensure that a conviction in the Senate does not take place—that is Democrats are unable to muster a two-thirds majority. The thinking is that even if senior Republican leaders like former Majority Leader Mitch McConnel of Kentucky had come out and condemned Trump for the events of January 6, it was unlikely that he would vote to convict the former President. And the same goes to other Republican Senators who have been sharply critical of Trump, but still would not vote against him leaving many with the impression that the trial in the Senate which is due to start on February 8 and last for about three weeks has a foregone conclusion.
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The third front of GOP lawmakers are those concerned about the Congressional elections outcome in 2022: the Democrats may have lost a few seats in the House of Representatives but have marginally bounced back to tie the score in the Senate giving them a small upper hand by way of Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, if required. The GOP wants to ensure that it gets back the Senate and will be contesting 20 out of the 34 seats in that Chamber in November 2022. Here again, both Democrats and Republicans are quite aware of the fact that there is a big difference between fending an incumbency and fighting a retiring seat of a Senator. For Republicans already Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has said that he is retiring; two others toying with this idea; seniors like Chuck Grassley of Iowa who is 87 years and Richard Shelby of Alabama at the age of 86 are apparently contemplating another run.
There have been several Republican lawmakers who have argued that former President Trump must be given his fair share of time to defend himself in the conviction phase of Senate trial, a view that has not been rejected by Democrats. Even if a conviction of Trump is seen only as a remote possibility, much would depend on the kind of evidence that comes up between now and the final process and in the context of new evidence that is going to surface by investigators and the cases that are going to be filed by prosecutors in various states. That would to a very large extent dictate the posturing of the different groups of GOP lawmakers. For now many within the GOP are looking at that stunning 75 million base of Trump and in their anxiety to tap that for 2022 and 2024. But first, the GOP will be keen on the message, only after this the messenger.
(The writer is currently a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai; previously, he was a senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)