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The GOP’s existential crisis

| Wednesday, February 10, 2021

It’s interesting to see history on the cusp of repeating itself. 

We saw the rise of our nation’s first two major political parties in the election of 1796, which featured candidates from the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, factions that vehemently opposed each other’s platforms. Over time, the Democratic-Republicans became the modern Democratic Party. The Federalists, on the other hand, experienced a dismal decline in the early 1800s until the party was effectively lifeless. Among other factors, a key feature of the Federalists’ demise was their opposition to the War of 1812 and threats of secession in New England. After the war, many Federalists were considered traitors by the country, which contributed greatly to the party’s death. 

Considering that many of the insurrectionists from the Jan. 6 Capitol riots were Republicans or Trump supporters, one has to wonder if the GOP has a similar fate. 

The GOP is currently deliberating on the party’s direction in a post-Trump era. Now, the Republican Party suffered heavy losses in the November election, just as I predicted last semester. Despite gaining a net 11 seats, the party still lost the Senate and the White House. Ordinarily, the losing party spends the time after the election figuring out what went wrong. For the Republican Party, this means defining the party’s identity. 

Since President Trump has left office, Republicans from all corners have been vying for either a GOP devoid of Trumpism or a GOP fueled by Trumpism. For instance, consider some efforts to purge the Republican Party of the former president. Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), the House Republican Conference Chair, voted to impeach President Trump, joining nine other House Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was pleased about the impeachment, seeing conviction as an opportunity for the Republican Party to move past Trumpism. Other acts of anti-Trumpism among Republicans come from Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE). 

At the same time, the pro-Trump sentiment is alive and well among Republicans. President Trump still holds 81% approval in the party. Of the House Republicans, 197 voted against impeachment, and the possibility of conviction in the Senate remains narrow. Representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) showcase how extremist positions still appeal to parts of the Republican base.

The GOP cannot move in both directions. The Republican tent is not large enough to hold Republicans willing to work with President Biden and individuals calling for violence against Democrats and spreading conspiracy theories, as Rep. Greene has done. Republicans have to attract new voters. The coalition of traditional Republicans and white voters without college degrees that won Republicans the 2016 election was not enough last November, despite those numbers growing due to higher turnout.

After the Republican Party lost the 2012 presidential election, the growing consensus was that Republicans needed to increase their vote share among minority communities. That strategy was abandoned in 2016 and 2020, but Biden’s victory, in large part due to African-American voters, demonstrates that the current Republican trajectory spells death in the GOP’s future. Sen. McConnell was right when he said conspiracy theories are a “cancer” on the GOP. Conspiracy theories and misinformation alleging the election was stolen (it was not) are not how you grow your voter base. This behavior only invites more bigotry and division.

Republicans should rid their party of these characters and bigots by focusing on a broad coalition of communities across America. Appealing to QAnon and fringe groups was a losing strategy in 2020. Rather than doubling down on that front, the GOP should become more inviting and inclusive. Whether that involves revising the party platform, reforming voter outreach efforts or other moves is a future debate. What matters now is the Republican Party rids itself of the conspiracy theorists and hatred within its own ranks. 

However, Republicans should not completely ignore the Trump faction. President Trump appealed to 74 million voters because he championed a politics of grievance, connecting with a group of Americans who felt left behind by their society and government.  Despite questions on the legitimacy of their feelings of abandonment, moving past the Trumpian episode of the GOP requires understanding why they feel this way. You cannot resolve a problem without diagnosing the issue. Figuring out ways to promote common understanding between Americans in any way is beneficial during times of division. Without that evaluation and necessary precautions, we may not be able to prevent the next insurrection. 

Now, this issue goes beyond simple partisan concerns and the self-interest of the Republican Party. The conspiracy theorists within the Republican Party have broad implications for our democracy. A major political party in our country championing a platform of conspiracy theories, demonizing the other side and encouraging violence only serves to weaken the sense of civic duty and unity that our nation so desperately needs. In many ways, the coming months detail the future of the GOP and the U.S. Such resolution requires cooperation among all Americans, whether they are Republican, Democrat, or neither. 

The Republican Party has entered an existential crisis. Will they retire the Trumpian banner or hold it higher than before? The outcome of this decision may spell the end of the GOP, just as the Federalists dug their own grave so long ago. The GOP must resolve this conflict quickly, because at the moment, the Grand Old Party isn’t all that grand. 

Blake Ziegler is a sophomore at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He loves anything politics, especially things he doesn’t agree with. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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