On Monday night, the central committee of North Carolina’s Republican Party unanimously voted to censure Sen. Richard Burr over his vote to convict Donald Trump in the impeachment trial. Just two days prior, Louisiana’s Republican Party had censured Sen. Bill Cassidy for the same, and censures are now under consideration for Sens. Sasse, Toomey, and Romney.
To many, these decisions are not only perplexing, they are outright unthinkable.
Why would state Republican parties across the nation cling so staunchly to Donald Trump, in spite of his recent loss?
Trump, after all, lost last year’s election by more than seven million votes and 74 electoral votes — a margin that he deemed to be a “landslide” in 2016, even absent the popular vote victory. He routinely suffered lower favorability ratings than any other president in modern history. And, despite readily labeling others “RINOs,” he ultimately wasn’t much of a Republican himself — frequently abandoning traditional conservative policies in favor of those most likely to enrich him.
So why the steadfast loyalty? Why the continued urge to place a twice-impeached, one-term president above the long-term interests of the party?
While wayward and misguided to some, this decision is driven by pure survival instinct for others, and a brief review of history may explain why.
Consider, Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections.
Seven of the last eight.
And it’s not like the climate is becoming more favorable to them, either. According to Gallup, in 1996, 38 percent of the electorate identified as conservative and only 16 percent as liberal — a 22-point margin. By 2020, however, that margin had shrunk considerably. While the percentage of conservatives didn’t much change (they comprised 36 percent of the electorate last year), the percentage of liberals rose to 25 percent, cutting that 1996 margin in half.
And by declining to progress on matters of social justice, Republicans are failing to broaden their appeal. While nearly half of the Democratic Party, for instance, is made up of conservatives and moderates, the Republican Party is made up predominantly of conservatives at 75%, drawing far fewer moderates and liberals.
So what does that mean for the future of the Republican Party?
In short, if you do not enjoy large cross-ideological appeal, and the group that you do appeal to is no longer vastly outnumbering the others, your only hope is to mobilize and turn out your base.
And mobilize the base Trump did, in perhaps a way that other Republicans failed.
Hence his win in 2016. Hence his 74 million votes in 2020.
In fact, temporarily ignoring the impact of population growth, if Republicans had been able to turn out 74 million voters in 2008 or 2012, they would have beaten Barack Obama handily. So, to them, Trump tapped into a winning strategy, despite the fact that he, well, lost.
So they’ve bowed to him. They’ve chosen to continue to show up for him, hoping, by way of transference, that the voters will then show up for them.
Excepting the morality of it all, it makes sense. At least at first blush. Donald Trump did manage to mobilize more voters than we had previously seen, and these voters were not apathetic; they were fiercely passionate and loyal, in a way that is appealing to the aspiring politician. Some of these supporters were even willing to see jail-time in order to help their leader hold onto power.
That kind of influence can be intoxicating. And it has inebriated the Republican Party.
What these Republicans fail to appreciate, however, is the other side of that coin. It’s fools gold.
Because Donald Trump inspired just as much resistance as he did loyalty. More, even.
For as valuable as those 74 million votes are, they are altogether futile if they are met with 81 million votes in opposition. And that opposition has only continued to grow since November. In November, for example, Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents outnumbered Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents just 48 to 45 in party affiliation. By December, however, with Trump’s disdain for democracy at center stage, that margin had grown considerably to 50 to 39.
And in the days since the Capitol insurrection, states have reported steady drop-offs in the number of registered Republicans, with at least 30,000 defections thus far and counting.
In fact, prior to the events of the last few months, Trump had already proven himself to be less popular than many of the same Republicans that the GOP now seeks to punish for being sufficiently disloyal.
Sen. Ben Sasse, for example, won 27,000 more votes in the state of Nebraska than Donald Trump did, even in the face of ballot roll-off (i.e. the tendency of voters to vote for president but abstain from down-ballot races). 21 percent of Nebraska Democrats backed Sasse while just 4 percent supported Trump. Meanwhile, 7 percent of Nebraska Republicans voted for Biden, while only 3 percent voted for Sasse’s challenger. Thus, it seems fair to say that Sen. Sasse was ultimately more electable than Donald Trump was, despite the fact that he was a vocal critic of the former president — a fact that earned him a censure from the state Republican Party in 2016. And Sen. Susan Collins, another vocal Trump critic, won nearly 57,000 more votes in the state of Maine than Trump did, proving once again that there is both an audience and an appetite for more conventional party leadership.
For these reasons, the Republican Party must not fall prey to the mirage of Trump’s fleeting success. Yes, he won the election in 2016, but in the four years that followed, he became so intensely unpopular that he engendered one of the largest resistance movements in our nation’s history, impelling 81 million Americans to vote against him. Impelling members of his own party to do the same.
Thus, while it may be tempting to mimic Trump’s rhetoric and mirror his political strategy in an attempt to keep these newly inspired voters engaged, it is important to the party’s future that they recognize the inherent danger in doing so, as they risk further alienating a significant portion of the electorate.
With America’s demographics and ideologies in flux, Republicans must not choose the route that is most politically expedient in the present; they must pursue a durable strategy that broadens their appeal and moves beyond their base, if they hope to win elections in the future.
That means saying goodbye to the era of Donald Trump and his demagoguery and ushering in a new era of conservative leadership guided by the principles and philosophies that first brought the party to prominence.
Because America will embrace a Republican leader again, but it will not be one in the mold of Donald Trump.
For as the wise George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once … can’t get fooled again.”