Something happened last Saturday that was significant because it was unprecedented: Donald Trump spoke at a rally in the heart of Trump country—Cullman, Alabama, which gave the incumbent president more than 88 percent of the vote in 2020—and he was booed. The jeers were scattered but noticeable, enough so that Trump responded to them.
Trump had encouraged those in the audience to get vaccinated. “I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do,” Trump said, “but I recommend: Take the vaccines. I did it—it’s good.” Yet for a large number of Trump supporters in the audience, even though the former president hadn’t embraced government or private-sector mandates, he had crossed a redline.
Two days later Alex Jones, the far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Trump courted in 2016, rebuked Trump. After playing a clip of Trump declaring that the vaccines are working, Jones responded, “BS. Trump, that’s a lie. You’re not stupid.” Jones added, “Shame on you, Trump. Seriously. Hey, if you don’t have the good sense to save yourself and your political career, that’s okay. At least you’re gonna get some good Republicans elected, and you know, we like ya. But my God. Maybe you’re not that bright. Maybe Trump’s actually a dumbass.”
These incidents are just a few of the straws in the turbulent wind, signs that something ominous is happening to the Republican Party. The GOP base may be identifying less and less with Trump personally—that was inevitable after he left the presidency—but it is not identifying any less with the conspiracist and antidemocratic impulses that defined him over the past five years.
In fact, the opposite is happening.
Not long ago, Trump was viewed as avant-garde, outrageous, and scandalous, America’s enfant terrible. His actions were viewed as so shocking and norm-shattering that he couldn’t be ignored. In today’s Republican Party, however, Trump is becoming what was once unthinkable—conventional, unexceptional, even something of an establishment figure.
In a right-wing movement that is home to a growing assortment of cranks and kooks—Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks and Madison Cawthorn, Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn, Mike Lindell and Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Cyber Ninjas and QAnon, anti-vaxxers and insurrectionists—Trump looks rather ordinary. He wants credit for the vaccines that were developed during his administration, which mark a genuine medical milestone, but in some quarters of today’s Republican Party, that makes Trump suspect, too closely aligned with the hated Anthony Fauci, a dumbass.
The dark, destructive place the GOP has found itself in isn’t shocking. For more than half a decade, the Republican base—MAGA world—has been fed a constant diet of outrageous lies and conspiracy theories, not just by Trump but also by his allies in the party and the right-wing media ecosystem. Negative emotions such as fear, rage, and resentment have been constantly stirred up. Over time, transgressive behaviors became chic; “owning the libs” became the name of the game. What mattered was hating the right people.
The MAGA brain was rewired. The psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to “amygdala hijack,” an intense emotional reaction that’s dramatically disproportionate to the situation. When a person has been triggered, their emotions take over, and they see the world through a distorted lens.
Republicans who assumed that the party would return to sanity after Trump left office never understood how deforming the effects of his presidency would be. For many, Trump’s behaviors were initially a bug; eventually, they became a feature. Republicans ignored his corruptions and reveled in his cruelty. They entered Trump’s hall of mirrors, and they rather enjoyed it.
To better understand what’s happening in the GOP, think of a person with addiction who over time develops a tolerance; as a result, they need more potent and more frequent doses of the drug to get their desired high. And sometimes even that isn’t enough. They might turn to a more potent drug, which offers a more intense experience and a longer-lasting high, but at the price of considerably more danger.
What was seen as shocking in 2017 is now anodyne. The ethical lines that existed then turned out to have been drawn in sand. When you cross into territory devoid of moral axioms or epistemic standards—the kind of world you would find in a Turgenev novel—things can get very ugly, very quickly. Even Trump—whose derangement now includes turning a violent Capitol Hill rioter who was shot and killed by a police officer into a martyr, falsely accusing the police officer of murder, and issuing yet another barely concealed incitement to violence—can begin to look like a mainstream figure within the party. At some point in the future, the same may be said of Marjorie Taylor Greene.
All of this is not only worrisome but deeply dispiriting, especially for those of us who were loyal Republicans for our entire political life, until 2016. To watch an entire party bend and then break and stay broken, to witness it become what it once claimed to loathe, to see it move in an even more frenzied direction after Trump’s presidency than during it, is painful. But not nearly as painful as staying silent or becoming complicit with those who continue to cause grave damage to conservatism, to truth, and to our republic.