The Bitter Reality of the Post-Trump GOP

An illustration shows a gray elephant with a lit fuse at the end of its tail.
The Atlantic

Mitt Romney’s flight to Washington, D.C., hadn’t even taken off yesterday when the chants from the back of the plane began: “TRAI-TOR! TRAI-TOR! TRAI-TOR!

The Republican senator from Utah is used to angering Donald Trump’s most die-hard fans. But Romney’s latest sin against MAGA orthodoxy—the one that had so riled his fellow passengers—is especially egregious: He’s refused to go along with a plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

“A huge portion of the American public has been misled by the president about the outcome of the election,” Romney told me over the phone, a few hours after his flight. He sounded fairly sanguine for a man who’d spent the day getting harassed in airports, and showed little interest in venting about his hecklers. Instead, Romney’s frustration was aimed at Republican leaders cynically fanning conspiracy theories about the November vote for their own political gain. In combustible moments like this one, Romney said, “you can either be a fire extinguisher or a flamethrower. And President Trump has been a flamethrower.”

The spectacle set to play out today on Capitol Hill—where at least a dozen Republican senators plan to challenge Electoral College votes from states the president lost—vividly captures the partisan incentives on the modern right. The Trump-era Republican Party has become a laboratory for innovations in illiberalism. Status flows to those who conjure the most creative defenses of corruption; rising stars prove themselves by smashing democratic norms. And anyone who voices dissent risks swift retribution from the president and his followers.

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This dynamic has only intensified since the election, as Trump’s allies have scrambled to keep him in power by whatever means necessary—or at least be seen trying. They’ve amplified baseless voter-fraud claims and championed failed lawsuits; they’ve strong-armed state election officials and assembled pro-Trump “electors” to replace the real ones. That none of these tactics has come close to succeeding hardly matters to enterprising Republicans such as Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who are leading today’s gambit. What matters are the millions of MAGA diehards enthusiastically cheering them on at every turn.

As the Trump era draws to a close, this is the state of the Republican Party: fractured, out of power, and bitterly fighting over core tenets of democracy. The president’s departure from office may be imminent, but the future of the party he’s leaving behind is less certain than ever.

Romney told me that he was outraged, if not entirely surprised, by the president’s recent machinations. He noted that Trump’s efforts to pressure Georgia’s secretary of state into subverting the vote bore an eerie resemblance to the president’s infamous 2019 call with the Ukrainian president, which led to Trump’s impeachment. “It was disrespectful of voters, it was dishonoring to the democratic process, and it disgraces the office of the presidency,” said Romney, the lone Senate Republican to support Trump’s removal from office. “The president was right that there was an effort to corrupt the election, but it was not by Joe Biden. It was by President Trump.”

Romney said he’s focused on persuading his Republican colleagues not to go along with Trump’s undemocratic scheme. He’s spent recent days working on a floor speech designed to appeal to his fellow senators’ sense of their own legacies. “In the eyes of history, all the nuance of the arguments made to object to electors being seated will probably be lost,” he told me. “And instead, it will be: Did you support this effort carried out by President Trump, or did you not?”

Such lofty arguments won’t work on everybody. Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a staunch Trump supporter, told me that he opposes the Electoral College challenge on constitutional grounds, and thinks most of his colleagues understand that Congress can’t actually reverse a presidential election. But he’s also clear-eyed about the political realities. “Trump has a 94 percent approval rating among my Republican electorate—I’ve actually polled it twice,” Massie said. “Those are people that vote in the primaries in Kentucky’s Fourth District … I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do.”

Jeff Flake, an outspoken Republican critic of the president who retired from the Senate in 2019, told me that too few of his former colleagues have been willing to level with their base during the Trump years. “Sometimes it’s your job to tell your constituents they’re all wet,” he said. “There’s been very little willingness to do that.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans are beginning to grapple with how the broken precedents of the Trump era could reshape politics in the years ahead—especially now that Democrats appear on the verge of controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has been urging his fellow Republicans to take the long view on the Electoral College challenge. “If politicians use a tactic once, they’ll use it again,” Sasse told me. “If these votes become a cost-free way to signal dissatisfaction with the outcome of an election, this is going to be a tradition every four years.”

For Romney, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a presidential power grab like Trump’s might actually succeed in the future. “Instead of being represented by Larry, Moe, and Rudy, a future presidential candidate may have highly competent counsel,” he told me. “There may be state election officials with less backbone. So the precedent itself is dangerous.”

After all, Romney noted, accusations of voter fraud are unlikely to vanish from American politics anytime soon. “You may not believe this,” he said, “but there are people who come up to me today and say, ‘You were robbed [in 2012]. You won; the Democrats stole your election.’”

When I expressed surprise at this, Romney laughed. “It was my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law,” he confessed. “I said, ‘Oh my, you’re wrong.’”