The Republican Party Is in a Strange Place

“Republicans don’t have a Trump problem. They have a voter problem.”

Photo mosaic of Trump, Greene, McCarthy, and DeSantis.
Getty; The Atlantic

The GOP is in a strange place. After falling short of expectations in the midterms, some Republicans blame Donald Trump, and some want to anoint a challenger for 2024. But with Trump already announced and a GOP-controlled House set to spend two years investigating Joe Biden, is the party at all likely to move on from Trump?

The Atlantic staff writers Mark Leibovich and Elaina Plott consider that question, as well as the ascent of Marjorie Taylor Greene as Congress prepares for its 2023 session, on this week’s episode of Radio Atlantic.

Listen to the conversation here:

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The following is a transcript of the episode:

Mark Leibovich: This is Radio Atlantic. I’m Mark Leibovich, staff writer for The Atlantic. I’m joined today by my colleague, Elaina Plott Calabro, who is also a staff writer who covers politics. Elaina, hi!

Elaina Plott Calabro: Hi!

Leibovich: The Republican Party is in a strange place. The 2022-midterm losses stunned the GOP and created calls for a 2024 challenger to Donald Trump.

But can the party move past the man who dominated it for six years? Now we’re actually going on seven years, almost eight years, right? It just keeps going and going. So, hi, Elaina—tell us everything.

Plott: Yeah. As I sit here, I am reflecting on the most recent midterm elections, and I would say that, for me, the biggest takeaway and what I’d love to hear your thoughts on is: When we were counting down to see if somebody like Kari Lake in Arizona, also someone like Blake Masters in Arizona, would end up pulling it out for the Republicans, what that would say about the party. Masters and Lake, of course, were huge proponents of the stolen-election theory.

But it didn’t work in the end. And I think the kind of immediate takeaway, at least that I was seeing among centrist-minded people but also people on the right who are vaguely anti-Trump, was that this was a lesson that the party is very ready to move on from Donald Trump.

Had somebody like Kari Lake won, maybe the message would’ve been the inverse. But I was a little reluctant to embrace that take for the reason that even if candidates who were all in on the stolen-election theory ultimately lost their general election, they still won the primaries—in many cases, quite handily.

I did not see the midterms, then, as a rebuke, necessarily, of Donald Trump’s Republican party—just as a message that independent-minded voters and centrist voters and soft Republicans, so to speak, are over Donald Trump, are very much over Donald Trump. But when it comes to a primary, I don’t know that anything has changed post-November. But I’d love to know your thoughts.

Leibovich: I could not agree with you more. I mean, I’m quite amused, as I suspect you are too, by the “Republicans are ready to move on from Donald Trump” notion that people like John Cornyn, John Thune, Mitch McConnell, any number of political operatives [of the opinion that:] “Oh my gosh, what do we do now people, because we’ve so underachieved in these midterms, let’s scapegoat Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chair.” Democrats were supposed to lose seats. They actually wound up gaining a seat. The House of Representatives was a major underachievement. What could possibly happen?

Okay. So what happens when Donald Trump goes and endorses Republican X tomorrow? I’m guessing he or she will win a decisive majority in Ohio district Y. And so, Republicans have a terrible “candidate quality” problem. I mean, Mitch McConnell used those words explicitly, referring to the fact that Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, go down the list, are not great candidates, and that will hurt Republicans.

Now, in the aftermath of the midterms, a lot of people say that “We have an RNC problem,” “We have a Ronna McDaniel problem,” “We have a Mitch McConnell problem.” What are we missing here? I think what we’re missing here and, and we can talk about this more, is who picks these candidates, right?

Plott: The problem is that Republicans don’t have a Trump problem. They have a voter problem. It was the voters who picked Kari Lake and Blake Masters. Perhaps it was independents and centrist Republicans who showed up on general-election day and did not vote for them. But when it came to the primaries, these candidates won—in many cases, pretty handily.

Just because they have lost in November doesn’t mean those voters themselves have changed. And by voters, I mean, really, the base of the Republican party, the ones who are going to show up and vote in primaries. Their preferences, what I think the midterms showed us, have not changed at all.

Leibovich: Right. And part of it is that there’s no language for this. Like, no one can get up there and say, “Hey, by the way, voters, we have a voter problem.” I mean, that’s not what any would-be leader would ever say. And unfortunately, it’s really, really hard to talk about what is in the hearts of a good number of voters. That gets you to some ugly words like racism or antisemitism—things that no one wants to be called, whether you’re a voter or a non-voter, whether you’re political or unpolitical. I mean, it’s ugly.

But Donald Trump has been pretty unshy about appealing to a lot of the impulses that are quite ugly and even now will not disavow these incredibly ugly elements that he’s eating dinner with.

Anyway, we are essentially talking about a lot of the same things, which is voters—radicalization of voters and Republican voters—which is actually a perfect segue into Marjorie Taylor Greene, who, as rendered in Elaina’s profile, is a deliciously kind of mundane, lost, suburban decadent soul. But I guess the larger question I would ask Elaina is: How is Marjorie Taylor Greene emblematic of these voters that we’re talking about?

Plott: I love that you used the word mundane to kind of describe the atmospherics of that story and how she came to power. Because I think that was what was so shocking to me, was the ease with which one in America can slide into that kind of radicalism.

Marjorie Taylor Greene was entirely apolitical, really, before she discovered Trump and QAnon in late 2016 going into 2017. So this is not someone who had these latent political thoughts churning and then Trump ignited them. She was someone who had tried to anchor her identity in various things throughout her adult life, whether it was evangelical Christianity or CrossFit, where she spent a lot of time.

As her interest in those things sort of started to taper off, it just so happened that it was right when Trump came onto the stage, and she says very explicitly in an interview at one point that Trump reminded her of “men like my dad.” And it was as though she had found the anchor she had finally been looking for for her identity.

Again, going back to just the ease with which it can tumble from a typical midlife crisis to total radicalization. She’s on Facebook one day and, based on my reporting from people who really knew her at that time, she found the #SavetheChildren hashtag. And it was as though a portal opened and she kind of stepped into the looking glass.

And for listeners who may not remember, the #SavetheChildren hashtag fed into this conspiracy theory called “Pizzagate” that there was a ring of pedophilia being run by Democrats in the basement of a DC pizza shop. And the potency of this conspiracy theory was such that there was a man from North Carolina who actually came down with a rifle, you know, bent on avenging these mythical children living in this pizza shop, and fired inside of this restaurant.

You know, it was a horrific incident, but I think for a lot of America, it was a wake-up call just in terms of how these conspiracy theories that, you know, a lot of people might talk about and just sort of wave off as silly are really taking root in, you know, certain segments of the population.

And people like Marjorie Taylor Greene did not log off. The deeper she got, the more deeply she became convinced that Democrats were sort of this soulless apparatus who were trying to, alongside people like the Rothschilds and George Soros, control the world in a nefarious way. And her purpose, as she saw it, sort of became to combat this.

So she ran for office. I take you all through that kind of long and rambling journey just to say that there was nothing really especially remarkable about it. She was a relatively normal person, a suburban housewife who had some time on her hands and had an internet connection. And here we are today.

Leibovich: I mean, wow, the utter unremarkableness, the mundanity of it, the conventionality of it makes it so spectacularly familiar.

You know, I talked to a number of fairly mainstream Republican members of Congress who are, most of them, not in Congress anymore, because Trump kind of drove them out. But they talk about their parents, especially their parents sitting down in Florida or wherever.

Plott: And some even siblings. It’s so close to everyone.

Leibovich: And they sit. They watch hours of Fox News a day, and [they say,] “Our biggest problem is all of these pedophiles running through our streets or these antifa gang members marauding through our streets—like, that’s, like, our biggest problem. And if we don’t stop this, you know, caravan over the border”—I mean, you know, sort of pick your menace of the week, right?

So, very conservative Republican Congressman X says, like, “Every week, I say, ‘Mom, just knock it off. Turn off the TV. Go outside. Take a walk. Go bowling. Do something. Like, this is not your religion. You talk about this more than you talk about anything else.” And I think when you get older, and when people get older, and this is largely still, you know, a lot of the Fox-watching population and a lot of consumers of this, you know, you become sort of fixed into the daily routine.

Your echo chambers get smaller. And again, it’s part of the completely unremarkable day-to-day radicalization that we’re talking about. And you know, now they’re becoming very, very vocally represented in Congress.

Plott: But I think what has become so different, especially since Trump came onto the stage, is that you have political leaders literally in the West Wing who are affirming these people and these beliefs, who aren’t telling them to knock it off or whatever. You know, it’s very different, even if your son is a congressman, to hear it from your son. But when you have someone in the White House saying, “No, no, no. He’s leading you astray. Keep watching it.” I think that’s a huge part of it.

And going back to Marjorie Taylor Greene, this is why I think a congresswoman like her is so dangerous. Because at this point, it almost doesn’t matter if she actually believes in it deeply anymore, any of those things, because she has made it so essential to her brand.

And what she understands is that she can kind of vaguely flirt with disavowal, as she did on the House floor in her maiden speech before she got stripped of her committee assignments. She said, you know, essentially, There were some things I believed that were not true. At no point did she say, QAnon on is full of falsehoods. It’s extremely dangerous to society. I wish I’d never fallen prey to it, and I hope anyone listening to this knows that—you know, this, it’s not the way forward. She did nothing of that sort. I mean, this is what I think people don’t appreciate about her. She is a shrewd person. She’s a shrewd politician, and she understands that her supporters who were listening to her that day, who continue to listen to her, still like QAnon, still are flirting with the edges of it, if not the very depths of it. So she’s never going to outright disavow it. And the problem with that is, and I’m going to jump briefly to pre–January 6, when I would cover Congress — you’d go on the Hill and you would ask, “What did you think about Trump’s latest tweet?” or whatever.

And they all hated that question. They hated it so much. They said, The tweets are meaningless. It means nothing. This is just trivial. I didn’t see it. I don’t get on Twitter. Nobody’s reading that stuff. And at times I could kind of empathize, you know, it would suck to be asked about this barrage of his 140-character thoughts at all times.

But the thing is, Americans were reading them. They were paying attention. And I think that all would’ve punched people in the face with the truth of that on January 6th, that there was a large cohort of people who had been listening to every single thing that Trump was saying.

And I think the same is true with Marjorie Taylor Greene. Even if she doesn’t believe the things she’s saying anymore, or the things she’s insinuating with or flirting with, the people listening to her do, and what they do with that can change the political landscape, as it did on January 6, in ways that we just can’t quite fathom.

Leibovich: No, we can’t. You know, if you do sort of look at the recent trajectory, I mean, we’re still in the Trump Age. The extremely fashionable thing to say and repeat these days is what we said before: The Republicans are ready to move on.

What would that look like? John Cornyn, John Thune, and Mitch McConnell say all that. Let’s have them start a rally in Ohio and see if they get more than a hundred people.

Plott: [Laughs]

Leibovich: Donald Trump could have a rally down the street, and I’m guessing the crowd would be substantially bigger. So now the fashion is: Oh, well, Ron DeSantis is sitting down in Florida. We’re all waiting for him. He’s the alternative. He is the anointed one.

But no, I don’t think so. I think DeSantis is very likely to be part of a long line of overhyped presidential candidates who are going to get into the race, be an 800-pound gorilla, and start dominating like Rick Perry did in 2012, or Scott Walker in 2016. I mean, go through the list of non-presidents. The only anointed Republican governor who got in, rolled to the nomination and eventually the presidency was George W. Bush.

And DeSantis, I get the same vibe here, with one exception: Donald Trump’s right there. And Donald Trump does not like Ron DeSantis for one reason and one reason only: He’s taken the spotlight away. He maybe wants to beat him.

And so, you have a situation with the two of them going at it. And then Mike Pence is waiting to run for president his whole life and defers to Ron DeSantis in Florida? No, he’ll say, “I’m going to try.” And Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger or Larry Hogan—someone who’s in the Never Trump lane—they’re going to say, “Yeah, I’m not going to be scared off by Ron DeSantis.”

So, next thing you know, there are seven candidates in Iowa. One of them is Trump. Forty percent of the Republicans in Iowa are rock solid for Trump. He wins. And off we go. DeSantis, after a few second-place finishes, decides that he’s got a big future and maybe Trump will make him his running mate. So he goes and, in the most obsequious and cringey way, starts sucking up to him again, like he’s built his entire recent political career on. He stops being the alternative. We all revert to form. And all of a sudden, it’s 2024, and here we are again.

Plott: Mhm. DeSantis is not at all positioned to go into a race where suddenly he is having to talk about all the bad things Trump has done. It’s just been antithetical to how he’s built his own brand [if you consider] the campaign commercial he did where he was teaching his child to “build the wall” with Legos or something like that. I’d love to hear more about what you think his style is and maybe what the fanfare around him is missing about him.

Leibovich: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that the fanfare is missing is that he’s not a terribly charming dude. That’s sort of overstated, but people who served with him in Congress, Republicans who served with him in Congress, Republican governors I’ve spoken to who were on various RGA-related things, Republican Governors Association-related things, do not speak well [of his personal charm].

And also, people who worked with him in Florida—his friends, or ostensibly his friends, or people who will probably support him—say that he’s got kind of a heavy lift as far as being an appealing look-you-in-the-eye kind of politician. I mean, if he tries to start a charm offensive, he would begin unarmed. This is not something you learn overnight. And I do think that Donald Trump does tend to do particularly well against people who are not terribly comfortable in their own political skin, who can’t think on their feet.

Plott: Such a good point.

Leibovich: We all remember putative frontrunner Jeb Bush and superstar Marco Rubio. Go down the list. Trump basically reduced them to puddles, just sort of bulldozed right over them. DeSantis’s biggest problem, for now, is Trump, [because] he’s basically a Trump derivative.

I just think that DeSantis is fool’s gold until proven otherwise. I mean, yes, he’s got some nice poll numbers. Donors seem really excited about him. Let’s see him plunk himself down in the middle of Iowa or Ohio or Texas or somewhere and get a crowd like one-tenth the size of what Trump could do if he tried that tomorrow.

Plott: Well, let’s talk, then, about Larry Hogan. Totally different kind of Republican. What is he thinking?

Leibovich: I mean, Larry Hogan’s kind of a generic “Hey, I’m a popular Republican governor in a blue state, and I don’t like Donald Trump. Vote for me.” He talked about challenging Trump in 2020, showed up in New Hampshire and Iowa, and the press was like, “Ooh, what a coincidence.”

Then he said, Well, I’m not going to launch a suicide mission against Donald Trump.

So Larry Hogan, like a lot of Republicans of various statures—Mike Pence, Liz Cheney, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan—did a big speech at the Reagan Library, in Simi Valley, and he talked about, you know, we have to be positive, we have to be Ronald Reagan again. The idea is that they’re just going to return to the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan. I remember Hogan gave this speech in Simi Valley, and that exact same night, J. D. Vance won his primary in Ohio, and he is standing at a podium in Cincinnati singling out Marjorie Taylor Greene for her great contribution and Donald Trump.

Look, Larry Hogan’s making all kinds of noises about running. He’s term-limited. He’s about to be an ex-governor. I’m sure he’s got a case he could make. You know, again, I would send him to Iowa. I bet his rally wouldn’t be all that much to watch live on Fox, CNN. I don’t think he’d probably get a very big crowd, but hey, maybe we’re completely missing the boomlet.

Plott: The Larry Hogan boomlet.

Leibovich: [Laughs] It’s about to explode. Now, look, I mean, look, it’s a great argument. It’s perfectly sound. It just doesn’t really exist in the real world of today’s Republican Party.

Plott: Yeah. Shining city on a hill. Time for being positive. It made me think of while I was reporting this Marjorie Taylor Greene piece, she did a radio show, and this woman called in and was saying, I’d love to talk to you about, you know, really extreme position on abortion, and clearly just wanted to have a back-and-forth with the congresswoman. And [Greene] immediately, it’s just, like, all defenses ready. She says, and I’m paraphrasing, but she’s essentially saying, Based on the sound of your voice, it doesn’t sound like you’ll be getting pregnant anytime soon, so I don’t know that this question is actually relevant to you. And [the caller] keeps trying to cut in again politely: But can we talk about the policy? And Marjorie Taylor Greene just shuts her down entirely. And I remember texting one of her advisers: “Do you think that she would have a better chance at bringing people to her side if she actually tried to engage with them, or soften in any way?”

And they said no. The time for Bill-Buckley-firing-line-type discourse is over. It’s war now. That’s, he said, that. He said that,—this adviser that I was talking to—it’s just, it’s total war now. And I think that, to me, defines so much more of the Republican base right now than the idea of, you know, Reaganism—like, tomorrow’s going to be better than today.

Leibovich: There was a really interesting piece in The New York Times about turnout, because everyone says, “Oh, okay, well, Republicans weren’t excited. They didn’t vote. And turnout was depressed.” In fact, Republicans had a serious turnout advantage over Democrats, and the conclusion there was: not all Republican voters voted for Republicans.

Plott: Mm-hmm.

Leibovich: Republican voters who actually made a point of coming out made a point of coming out because they wanted to vote against Kari Lake or vote against Herschel Walker, or vote against Doug Mastriano or any other number of people who were just so offensive—even to Republicans and certainly a lot of independents—that that turnout didn’t necessarily translate to Republican victories, even though the high numbers of these people turning out were in fact Republicans.

Plott: And Warnock. I mean, that was an explicit part of his strategy too, which is where I think Stacey Abrams really erred. Her strategy in this most recent gubernatorial race that she lost in Georgia was built around trying to get the Democratic voters and the young voters who typically stay home. Whereas Warnock took a completely different tack, which is to say: “Let’s go get the soft Republicans or the centrists who maybe have always been registered Republicans but can’t stomach Herschel Walker as their senator.” And it worked out really well for him.

Leibovich: Yeah. What I think the larger point here that we’re talking about is that persuasion still does matter. I mean, there’s been this conventional wisdom around turnout elections, which is: If you can get your base out and get your base excited, you’re going to win.

And no, not necessarily. We’ve learned that there are nuances in the middle that can be determinative. And I think that’s hopeful. I think persuasion and serious debate and serious voters are all a good thing for the democracy that we’re all fighting for. That was one of the takeaways that I think that maybe is hopefully some kind of trend line that’s moving in a positive direction.

Plott: But it’s all in the general election. We have to remember: As long as Republican candidates and officials continue to feel just shackled by the basest instincts of their base voters, they’re never going to be in a position in a Georgia, say, or a North Carolina, even, to be the ones persuading successfully.

Leibovich: It’s true. And look, we’re pretty soon going to be in a presidential cycle, and Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, whoever, are not going to be in a persuasion mode …

Plott: Exactly.

Leibovich: … as far as finding these sort of centrist suburban women who have become the wild card in these races.

Plott: Absolutely.

Leibovich: We should talk about the bread and circus that is the House Republican caucus that will be in charge. The House will soon be in Republican hands. The question is: Who will lead that House? Kevin McCarthy has been working many, many years to be the next speaker of the House. He has very thin margins, has a number of potential dissenters from within the Freedom Caucus, and rumblings of opposition from Andy Biggs of Arizona.

It looks like it will be a really, really messy process for the next few weeks. And I would guess, maybe because of default and because there’s no clear alternative, Kevin McCarthy maybe pulls this out. But man, this is going to be a really, really dicey caucus to try to lead, even if you can get the speaker’s gavel and have the title for the rest of your life.

Elaina, how do you see this play outing? I feel like we’re trying to predict an avalanche, but how’s the avalanche look?

Plott: You mentioned how many years Kevin McCarthy has been waiting for this moment, to actually be installed [as] speaker. In my admittedly brief adult life, this will be the third time that Kevin McCarthy has come close to the speakership only to have something, whether it’s John Boehner suddenly deciding to retire or the election being postponed or any number of events that have seemed to conspire to make sure that he doesn’t actually get the gavel.

And now here we are again with the Freedom Caucus saying they don’t love the idea of Kevin McCarthy. In 2015, of course, that was when Paul Ryan was brought in to do this, and the Freedom Caucus gave him a hard time too. There were a lot of negotiations and deals that had to be worked out before they gave him their blessing. And I don’t know how that’s going to happen this time around.

But speaking of Marjorie Taylor Greene, he does have her on his side trying to rally people around him. I think where that may be falling short is that everybody understands that it’s a quid pro quo in the sense that McCarthy has made clear she will have a seat on the Oversight Committee, should she vote for him for speaker.

And there’s a lot she wants to do with that position. She wants to investigate Hunter Biden. She’s filed no fewer than five impeachment resolutions against Joe Biden. There are also cabinet secretaries that she wants to go after. She said the other day that she wants to defund the DOJ. And with a position on Oversight, she will have the latitude to at least perform a theater of sorts.

And, I think we can expect things like that immediately, regardless of whoever is Speaker, just because there really does not seem to be a Republican agenda among the House conference to do anything else. I mean, Kevin McCarthy has said [that] on the very first day of the new Congress, he is going to have the Constitution recited on the House floor. But beyond that, I think it is anyone's guess. It’s almost like we can’t even think about that so much, because it is still actually kind of dicey as to whether he gets the gavel anyway.

Leibovich: There are so many layers of unknown between now and when the leadership of the next Republican majority in the House is set. And I think, as we’ve been saying for years, a lot is being driven by the base of the Republican party, whatever that looks like—whatever that morphs into in the next year or two. Wherever we go from here.