At least a half-dozen GOP state legislators were part of the crowd at the Capitol Wednesday. A West Virginia lawmaker, dressed in a helmet, filmed himself rushing the building with other participants in the siege. And in Arizona, Republicans were expressing such fealty to the president that they were openly discussing the possibility of forming a new party around him — despite his inability to carry the state last year, a first for a Republican presidential candidate since 1996.
“Can we salvage/save the Republican Party or do we need another option?” Kelli Ward, the state party chair, asked on Twitter, listing one of the options as “Salvage it!” and one of them “#MAGA Party needed.”
Ward blamed the chaos at the Capitol not on the rioters, but on what she called the Democratic Party’s refusal to more fully examine voting procedures. Various House members adopted a similar stance, falsely claiming that antifa infiltrators were behind the violence.
The likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Mitt Romney — who cast a glowering stare over Republican objections to Joe Biden’s election when lawmakers returned to the newly-desecrated Capitol — are now “icons of the past,” said J.C. Martin, chair of the Republican Party in Polk County, Fla.
In the riot, Martin said, there were “a few folks who clearly went overboard.” But the key takeaway, he said, was “the shock to the left that the right’s not just going to be quietly, sitting at home when they’re wronged.”
“The Trump name in the Republican Party is stronger than it has ever been,” Martin said.
Outside of the party’s shell-shocked political and professional classes, it wasn’t clear that Trump’s currency with the base was worse off post-Wednesday at all.
“I don’t think anybody thinks it diminishes it,” said Phillip Stephens, the Republican Party chair in Robeson County, N.C. “I think the media wishes it would diminish it.”
Stephens predicted that in the great divide between the party’s grassroots and establishment forces, the post-Trump era would force a unification “out of necessity,” a result of the party’s newfound status as the out-party in Washington.
But it appeared equally, if not more likely, that the fallout from Wednesday could mark a point of no return in the longstanding schism between the party’s most institutionalist and Trumpian flanks.
Establishment Republicans — once content to at least tolerate, if not encourage, Trump’s most rampageous impulses — pulled away from the president and his allies more resolutely than ever before. Some business interests turned on the president, with National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons, a Republican, suggesting the Cabinet consider invoking the 25th Amendment to declare Trump unfit for office.
Broadening the condemnation to Republicans beyond Trump — concerning a GOP that will need business support and money in future elections — “any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy,” Timmons said.
“There’s like an evil that’s infected our party and got into the veins of too many of our limbs,” said Doug Gross, a Republican operative who was a chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. “And they’re going to fall off, because at the end of the day, Republicans care about our country, and this is devastating to our country. And if you’re part of it, you’re going to pay a price for it.”
But for the base, it hardly mattered that some White House staffers resigned following the riot — an eleventh-hour act of protest of dubious weight — or that some of the president’s allies were critical of him. Just hours after the Capitol was breached, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and more than half of House Republicans still voted against certifying the results of the presidential election.
The problem for Trump’s allies — and for Republicans broadly — is that it may now be impossible to maintain the already-tenuous alliance between the demands of the base and the more restrained segment of the Republican-leaning electorate.
“I get that there are competing factions within our party and there always have been,” said Stan Barnes, a former Arizona state lawmaker and longtime Republican consultant. “But the big reveal today is that those competing factions and the natural tension between the money wing of the party and the conviction-grassroots wing of the party has just been shot with a … steroid and is out of control and is not a fever that is going to break and pass anytime soon.”
Barnes, who believed before Wednesday that intraparty friction might eventually fade, said, “Any thought we were entertaining of a certain return to normalcy, whatever that looks like, is in my mind just gone.” Saddled with “these pictures of these lunatics on the Capitol steps,” he said, the GOP is now confronting a “bigger-than-all-things problem,” with the bedlam the Capitol hardening the division between the GOP’s establishment and its still-fervently pro-Trump base.
Republicans still need both the grassroots and the country club set to win in most competitive states, as evidenced by its failings in the midterm elections, in Trump’s re-election campaign and in the Georgia Senate runoffs on Tuesday.
The idea among Republicans was that in the post-Trump era it could improve on its coalition — either with a Trump-like but less polarizing figure who could still motivate the base, or with a different kind of Republican who might broaden it. According to that thinking, traditionalist Republicans could likely stomach the former, as they had Trump, and rank-and-file Republicans could come around to the latter.
But with images of the riot etched into the nation’s consciousness on Wednesday, that equation may have changed. “I think it was a political 9/11,” said one prominent Republican strategist, describing a moment at which “the establishment that hated having Trump and couldn’t stand it and tolerated it and put up with the populism and put up with all this s—, they have their moment.”
“It’s the establishment strikes back,” he said. And between the establishment and the base, he said, now “we’ll see who has the most staying power.”
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