As has been the case for the last 25 years or so, Rodney King always seems to come to mind when ugly conflicts explode into the public sphere. And things become especially prickly when battle lines are drawn between supposed ideological soulmates. For the Republican party recovering from the shock of a political power blackout in the nightmare year of 2020, and now the removal of the leading anti-Trump voice in GOP leadership, there is a single question which begs an answer.
Can we all get along?
The answer to that question may be every bit as complicated as trying to reconcile those ‘90s-vintage race rioters in South Los Angeles with the LA Police Department. The animosity is that great on both sides. Trump loyalists believe the vote by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to impeach the 45th president is unforgivable and have vowed to vigorously oppose all who support her. Cheney’s establishment cohorts are dead set on never seeing the whites of Donald Trump’s eyes again in the Oval Office.
Caught in the middle of this fight are rank-and-file Republicans, the voters who will ultimately determine the direction of the party – or watch it divide and decay even further to the point of no return. Right now, conservatives are dazed, dispirited and confused, caught between the undeniable historic accomplishments of Donald Trump and the unavoidable reality of January 6 – or more precisely, how 1.6.21 has been interpreted by the citizenry.
How can there be reconciliation between those who believe Trump was one of the greatest presidents of our lifetime, and those who believe him to be not just a bad person, but a danger to the Republic? Make no mistake – the passion of Trump supporters is equaled or surpassed by the vocal minority intent on purging him from the party.
The problem for the MAGA crowd is reconciling the infamous uprising of January 6 with a public worried it that will happen again if Trump re-emerges. But that is a problem for later, and only if Trump seeks another term in the White House. In sharp contrast, the uphill climb faced by establishment forces is far steeper – for the most basic of reasons: they are unpopular – perhaps wildly unpopular – among the party’s base voters. In 2016, the establishment threw every one of their best and brightest up against Donald Trump – and they were all wiped out. Trump promised big, governed big, and maintained strong support from GOP voters throughout his term.
A Common Enemy
With the ever-diminishing likelihood of a kumbaya moment between Trumpists and Cheneyites, there remains but one strategy – or hope – for reconciliation: a common fear of the left. It is up to the party hierarchy to stoke sufficient – and justified – fright about the far-left tilt of the current president and Congress to motivate voters to show up and stop the left, if not affirm the right. Of course, this lone strategy is far easier said than done, given the alliance of the party’s Never-Trump wing with the left throughout the Trump era. Now that these one-time party loyalists have proven that personality trumps policy (pun somewhat intended) and have made a spectacle of abandoning their long-standing conservative beliefs in order to take down a president from their own party, all bets are off.
If you remain unconvinced (for good reason) that the undisguised animosity – or downright hatred – between the two sides is reconcilable in time for the party to regain legislative power in 2022 and/or presidential power in ‘24, then perhaps history can provide some basis for optimism. As this pandemic has proven, earth-shattering events, controllable or not, can change things almost overnight.
Of Presidents and Candidates Past
Exhibit A in rapid reversal of fortune would be Herbert Hoover, who rode the prosperity of the roaring ‘20s to a one-sided win over Democrat Al Smith in 1928 – the GOP’s third straight presidential victory. But along came the Great Depression, and four years later, Hoover was ridden out of D.C. on a rail, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt planted the Democrat flag atop the White House, where it stayed for 20 years.
Trump must know how Hoover felt. After delivering so much of what establishment politicians had only been able to promise, he was brought low by the rarest of the rare: not just a once-in-a-century killer pandemic, but one that occurred in a presidential election year. Like Hoover 88 years before, Trump proved unable to survive a sucker punch of that magnitude. Few if any presidents could.
But as grim as things might appear for GOP loyalists in this snapshot in time, it is hardly the first time the modern Republican Party has appeared dead in the water. Barry Goldwater was beaten in an historic landslide in 1964, but in the midst of the Vietnam quagmire, the GOP won back the White House four years later with Richard Nixon.
Then, with the party in tatters after the Watergate affair and resignation of Nixon in 1974, they were back on top in a big way by 1980, when Ronald Reagan came to the rescue and became the party’s dominant figure to the point that he is, to this day and in most conservative circles, the GOP gold standard. In 2013, stung from back-to-back trouncings of establishment candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney at the hands of Barack Obama, the GOP appeared on the road to oblivion again, unable to appeal to the working men and women of America. But along came Donald Trump – and everything changed in what seemed the twinkling of an eye.
There are also ample historical precedents on the other side of the aisle. The most glaring would be circa 1972 and an historic landslide loss by George McGovern to the incumbent Nixon, leading to an intra-party conflagration, not unlike the GOP of today, between traditional liberals and ascendant radical leftists. But along came Watergate, then Jimmy Carter and his promise to restore morality to national politics, and Democrats regained the White House just four years after they were annihilated.
But history has similarly demonstrated that party restoration and renewal can just as often be painstakingly slow. When Jimmy Carter crashed, Reagan rose, and Democrats were sentenced by voters to twelve long years on the back side of the desert – manifested in overwhelming defeats of the incumbent Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in ‘84 and Michael Dukakis in ‘88 – before Bill Clinton restored the White House to Democrat rule. Conversely, it took eight years – and the emergence of Trump – for the GOP to shake off the residual unpopularity of George W. Bush and failed candidacies of McCain and Romney.
The worm always turns, often slowly, but sometimes more rapidly – and unexpectedly. This boiling conflict between those who love Trump and those who hate him will ultimately be settled by the party’s most passionate supporters. And while history is replete with unknowable or unforeseen events which will likely tip the scales, political oddsmakers are similarly unlikely to establish Liz Cheney and company as the favorites to prevail over a president who, for whatever his flaws, has been the most dominant figure in the Republican party since Ronald Reagan.
Read more from Tim Donner.