Not since Hillary Clinton mysteriously declined to campaign in Wisconsin has there been so epic a political screw-up. Though it has been overshadowed by the spasm of chaos which erupted yesterday at the Capitol, one day earlier in Georgia, the Republican Party forfeited their most precious remaining governing commodity — a narrow majority in the US Senate — with a series of blunders that were remarkable for being so disastrously self-inflicted.
Two months after a presidential election widely declared to have been the most important in all of American history, the Georgia run-offs were coincidentally also declared the most important Senate elections ever. Yes: which party maintains a majority in the Senate makes a substantial difference. Republicans will control no branch of government now. But if the events in Georgia demonstrate anything about the US political system, it’s that to varying degrees both parties are stuck in a spiral of semi-permanently campaigning on how their opponents are the embodiment of civilisation-destroying apocalyptic terror — rather than putting forth any kind of tangible, positive agenda of their own.
During the campaign, the two incumbent senators from a once-decisively Republican state chose to spend their time warning incessantly that the United States would devolve into socialist tyranny if their Democratic opponents, Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, prevailed. Such claims were backed by Donald Trump who, rallying in Georgia on Monday night, repeated his contention that full-blown communism was right around the corner should Democrats gain a one-vote majority in the Senate. Allegedly this nightmare would be ushered in by Joe Biden — certainly everyone’s idea of an aspiring communist despot.
In these peculiar political circumstances, all that Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler could have really offered by way of a positive agenda was some combination of the following arguments: 1) that the Georgia election system fraudulently deprived Trump of victory in November, just as he’s repeatedly alleged for two months straight, and statewide Republican officials must be punished for their guilt in the scheme, or 2) that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, must retain control of the Senate so he and his caucus can continue depriving Americans of $2,000 cash relief cheques, which McConnell has been dogged in blocking, despite demands for the cheques from Trump. For obvious reasons, neither would have been particularly inspirational stump speech material.
Parties that become hyper-reliant on a never ending cascade of wildly inflammatory and reality-detached rhetoric are often masking their own insecurities and weaknesses. Compare the final Democratic messaging of the campaign: Warnock and Ossoff stressed that among their first actions would be to approve the $2,000 Covid relief payments, and Biden travelled to Georgia on Monday to underscore his own support for this initiative. Perdue and Loeffler, conversely, couldn’t exactly tout a triumphant pledge to keep McConnell in power so he can carry on witholding withhold cash payments from Americans during a pandemic and protracted economic contraction.
So instead, they resorted to the same trite playbook that failed Trump in the general election — bellowing endlessly about the imminent onslaught of radical Leftism. Warnock and Ossoff are more “progressive” than the traditional Georgia Democrat, it’s true. But a skin-of-their-teeth Democratic majority in the Senate is highly unlikely to usher in anything particularly radical. And the attack rings even hollower when what the supposed “radical Leftists” are advocating is to give people cash based on a proposal that Trump himself loudly supports. In addition, if Loeffler — the wife of the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange who bought her way into an appointment to the Senate seat she unimpressively occupied — really represents the last bulwark against socialist tyranny, then she makes socialist tyranny seem somewhat preferable.
The stultification of Republican electoral strategy stems fundamentally from the fact that there has been no substantial intra-party public debate about the reasons for Trump’s loss. Even now, more than two months later, to merely state that Trump lost provokes profound rage among a large segment of the party’s voters. You can be mercilessly attacked online and threatened with career-ending repudiation for doing so; Purdue and Loeffler couldn’t deviate from this line, for fear of alienating fraud-believing Trump supporters in Georgia. But Republican turnout dipped anyway, most probably because conservative media had been completely inundated with accusations that the Republican-led state government of Georgia was complicit in a conspiracy to oust Trump. It turns out “fraud-pilling” one’s own voters might not be the most reliable path to victory.
The manic Trump-induced obsession with purported fraud thereby delayed any thoroughgoing public discussion of how Congressional Republicans over-performed in November, across many metrics, even as Trump went down to defeat. So instead of capitalising on those gains, Republicans jettisoned them.
As for McConnell, it was one of the more astounding moves in recent political history to sacrifice his own Senate majority, which most of his professional life has been structured around preserving at all costs, because he was dead-set against sending out the $2,000 cheques. A figure which in the grand scheme of things, as Trump would say, is “peanuts”.
But even with the majority vanquished, McConnell will maintain a fair amount of power as minority leader. As of 20 January the Senate will stand as split 50-50 with future Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. The possibility of a few Democratic defections here and there means McConnell will have plenty of opportunities to exert legislative influence. And he can rest easy knowing that he successfully used Trump as a vehicle to achieve the generations-long dream of the conservative donor class — a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court, as well as some corporate tax cuts.
The coming trajectory of the Republican Party depends on whether its elected officials, donors, and allied media figures will ever be permitted to conduct a candid public assessment of what transpired in the 2020 election — not all of which bodes poorly for their future — without the encumbering distraction of Trump’s wild fraud claims. Even in losing, Trump made conventional wisdom-defying gains among nonwhite groups in November, and the nature of the party coalition has genuinely trended toward a more working-class orientation. But the implications of this shift have yet to be really reckoned with because, again, to even state that he lost the election brings forth a torrent of wrath from Trump supporters, in addition to Trump himself. The mob which stormed the Capitol yesterday may have been the most extreme physical manifestation of this fury, but it’s astoundingly widespread across the Republican electorate.
Once the fog clears, if it ever does, the contours of a potential power struggle for influence in the party will emerge. One dividing line for Republican officials will be whether they’ll revisit the negative character traits they once identified in Trump and cite them as a contributing factor to the GOP’s electoral losses. The fiasco at the Capitol will probably make it easier for Trump-weary conservatives to do this. Like virtually every other Republican member who had once been resolutely against him five years ago, figures such Sen. Ted Cruz — who once described Trump as a “pathological liar” and massive narcissist — later got on board due to the exigencies of party polarisation, and then enthusiastically welcomed Trump’s help when he was up for re-election in 2018 in Texas.
But as Cruz prophesied, Trump’s unrelenting self-centredness almost certainly did cost the GOP candidates critical votes in Georgia. At the rally on Monday, ostensibly intended to get out the vote for Loeffler and Perdue but functionally another classic Trump airing of grievances, the first words out of his mouth were: “Hello Georgia. By the way, there’s no way we lost Georgia. There’s no way. That was a rigged election.”
Should Trump revert to some kind of “shadow president” posture after he leaves office, Cruz may end up returning to the critique of the former president’s character he expounded in 2016. Obviously this would have to be coupled with a steadfast recognition of the policy achievements of the Trump presidency, but if Trump is determined to see that his egotism consumes the party’s consciousness for the next several years, there will be a number of Republicans who eventually get fed up. Their differing plans for managing that conundrum will be of note.
Probable presidential candidates like Cruz and Senator Josh Hawley may try to capture some of Trump’s supporters, given their efforts to reject the votes of the Electoral College on Wednesday during a joint-session of Congress. This was always going to be a purely theatrical and ultimately inconsequential plot — as they were well aware, both being Ivy League lawyers. But it was a gesture that they likely calculated was going to give them the symbolic leverage to say they “fought” for Trump, even as they move to distance themselves from him.
With the mob chaos ruining the effort, though, their calculations appear to have backfired in spectacular fashion. Still, there will be many opportunities for symbolistic “fighting” in the years ahead — and it will be substantially easier to pull off when they’re in the minority and have fewer governing responsibilities.
An aggrieved post-presidency Trump, denouncing on the way out everyone from his own Supreme Court appointees, to his former Attorney General, to the leadership of the Senate Republican caucus, to his own Vice President, will likely remain in perpetual denunciation-mode for some time after he leaves office. This will go a long way in forestalling any kind of ideological self-evaluation in the Republican Party which could explain why in a span of four years, they went from full control of the House of Representatives, Senate, and presidency to no control of all three. The delay will be even longer if there are more riotous mobs to quell. Ambitious party leaders will have to figure out how to navigate this exceedingly unpleasant dynamic.