7 min read
How a Slim Majority in the House Makes for a More Radical and Fractious Republican Party

Henry Choisser

The numbers are (mostly) in: there are 50 Democratic lawmakers in the Senate; meaning that Kamala Harris will once again cast the deciding vote for the next 2 years. However, the story is different in the House with projected final results of 222 Republican to 213 Democratic Representatives. Simply put, the Biden legislative agenda is dead without control of both houses, but the results of the election bucked historical precedent for the President’s party, upended the expectations of Republican strategists, and bolstered Biden’s standing within the Democratic Party. 

As we enter the lame duck session of Congress, before the new members are sworn in on January 3rd, there are already power struggles over house leadership, criticisms flying among the opposition over midterm shortcomings, and bipartisan plans for an unprecedented aid package to Ukraine. Most of the clouds have parted over the election results with no evidence of a “Red Wave”, (thanks in part to abnormally large youth turnout in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobb’s decision) and we can now draw some conclusions about the future Congress and brewing divisions within the Republican party. 

Any tale of the internal GOP conflict cannot be told without first introducing our antagonists: the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). This 40-odd group of right-wing lawmakers (who host their own separate “bootcamp” on House rules and procedures) from incontestably red districts have made an infamous name for themselves. They compelled a former House Speaker Boehner, a fellow Republican, into early retirement in 2015, actively support MAGA candidates against incumbent GOP representatives, and have obstructed hundreds of (normally instantaneous) voice votes as retribution for Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s removal from her committee assignments [after posts of her supporting violence against Dem. lawmakers surfaced on social media]. Moreover, they have adopted a culture of open criticism, if not hostility, towards the Republican party establishment. This culture was inherited from the Tea Party movement - which should be seen as the ideological forebearers of the HFC. 

Ironically, with the narrow margins in the House, Rep. Greene and other troublemakers look set to be given powerful committee assignments in the Oversight and Judiciary committees (among others). Positions these HFC members will use to begin politicized investigations of Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and the Department of Justice. 

Upwellings of populist anger and enthusiasm have energized the conservative movement for decades. A notable strain of modern relevance emerged from the “America First” isolationist and nativist movement of the late 1930s and early 1940s, with repeating movements on near generational cycles, of approximately 18 years, since then. The Tea Party departed from the historical pattern of upswell, moderation, and eventual recession. The 87 Republicans propelled into the House by the Tea Party wave in 2010 primarily came from gerrymandered conservative districts, so they had no need to moderate their position to win over Democratic and independent voters - the only threat to their reelection came from being outflanked on the ideological right in a GOP primary. 

That ideological belligerence carried into the formation of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015. Although the Tea Party was another casualty of the 2016 presidential election - its adherents split between Ted Cruz and Trump - hindsight shows us that even Tea Party darling Cruz folded into the MAGA political sphere. Trump himself was well aware of the continuity between the Tea Party movement and his own. “Those people are still there. They haven’t changed their views,” he told reporter Tim Alberta. “The Tea Party still exists — except now it’s called Make America Great Again.” From the ashes of the Tea Party there are two main offshoots of the movement (that are not strictly separate): the MAGA squad and the HFC. 

The Washington Post has likened Trump’s brand of conservatism to Trotsky’s concept of an endless, all-encompassing, global struggle against established authority. Claiming that the #MAGA tribe loosely parallels Trotsky’s proletarian class, pursuing its own interests against those of every other class in society, without allegiance or compromise. However, it has become a perpetual grievance machine unwilling (or unable) to resolve those grievances through governance and legislation, while simultaneously waging a never-ending war against Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, President Obama observed that Trump “is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party.” 

This sentiment was in its own way echoed by John Fredericks, a syndicated conservative talk-radio host who attended Trump’s candidacy announcement on Tuesday Nov. 15, when he said, “Beat us. Stop talking, stop having meetings, get in the primaries, get into conventions, get into the delegate meetings and beat us. This is a populist party and there’s no other candidate that we have except Donald Trump.” 

However, as Geoff Kabaservice opined, the party’s base - especially the large portion of non-college-educated, working-class citizens - legitimately need the government’s help with many of their problems. A strategy of politicized and intractable obstruction (against both the Democratic and Republican establishment) endangers the party’s long-term viability if it persists in its inability to resolve real problems. Cynical political realism, if nothing else, suggests that the Republican Party can’t carry on forever as a permanent grievance machine. 

This may explain why outlets owned by acerbic conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch have been lambasting Trump in the wake of midterm underperformance - The New York Post even depicted Trump as Humpty Dumpty with the caption: “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall – can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?” In the next week’s issue, the Post put Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on its cover – calling him “DeFuture.” One person familiar with how the billionaire mogul runs the companies told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that the decision to focus on DeSantis “is not an accident.” 

Moreover, it seems that Trump has lost his super power - he can’t get constant media coverage and blind support. Prime time media snubbed the event, Matt Gaetz didn't show up at Trump’s candidacy announcement, and even the excoriation of Trump by the Post was buried on the 26th page. When asked about his last minute cancellation Gaetz claimed: "We're focused on [the midterms] and the Georgia election.” Even Trump’s return to Twitter isn't making waves with his apparent abstinence from the social media platform. While his account was banned it appears that most people forgot to unfollow the former President, as he retains 87 million followers despite posting zero tweets since January 8th 2021. 

Former Trump ally, Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, who spoke at the Jan. 6th rally before the attack on the Capitol, put it more bluntly: “In 2020, there was no other option. In 2024 we will have candidates who are vastly superior and will do much, much better competing against the Democrat nominee than the loser Donald Trump has proven himself to be.” Four major party donors (Stephen Schwarzman, Thomas Peterffy, Ken Griffin and Ronald Lauder) announced that they plan to support candidates other than Trump in 2024. Ivanka Trump - a staple during Donald Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office - says that she is “choosing to prioritize'' her children and would not be involved with his campaign. 

Lobbying groups like the Club for Growth, once a steadfast Trump ally, are circulating polling showing Trump trailing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida by double digits. Even Representative Kevin McCarthy, who is in a leadership struggle with the HFC (many of whom are part of the unofficial MAGA squad), wouldn’t say if he will endorse Trump for president. For those who have been more vocal, their previous “concerns” have changed into direct attacks as they try to capitalize on what they see as a possible chance to hurdle over Trump and embrace a new era of party leadership. 

The disillusionment with Trump means that Desantis could take over a large portion of the Republican base when it comes to the 2024 primaries - especially conservative voters who found Trump to be uncouth, traitorous, or just dumb. There is a looming split in the Republican party, whether that split is with Trump or within its own ranks is uncertain. However, the latter seems more likely given the cult of personality responsible for much of Trump’s political power. If that is the case, and if a true schism occurs within the Republican party it could cause a cascade effect that ruptures the existing peace in the Democrat party between overzealous progressives and old school moderates. 

The Freedom Caucus is already trying to flex its leverage in the House by proposing the reinstitution of a rule that allows for a vote to oust the Speaker of the House - a rule which the same caucus used to compel John Bohner’s resignation in 2015. Although a long shot, it illustrates the kind of power struggles that are ongoing within the Republican Party. These divisions have been brewing since before the Tea Party shut down the government in 2013 despite having Republican control in the House. This exact scenario could play out again given the narrow margins the future House leadership will have to pass funding bills. Especially if firebrand HFC Representatives refuse to work with the Speaker to pass bills that have any chance of making it through the Democrat controlled Senate. 

Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, another former Trump ally, received applause when he told a room full of party donors, governors, and strategists that Trump cost the party victory in the past three federal elections. What happens if the Republican party faces a scenario where the anti-establishment Freedom Caucus/MAGA squad shuts down the government (as they persuaded Trump to do in 2018/19) and leads the Party to another stinging defeat? Polling indicates that about one-third of the Republican Party remains devoted to Trump, making it difficult for another candidate to oust him in a sprawling primary field. Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, who said he’d like Gov. DeSantis to enter the presidential race, pointed out that Trump posed a unique threat to the party — particularly if he does not end up as its nominee. “You have a candidate who isn’t afraid to bring down the party,” Mr. Cox said. “It’s a different calculation for him than it is for my colleagues.” 

Irrespective of whether the Republican party can salvage itself from its extremist elements, it is the sincere wish of this author to see both major parties fragment from their radical fringes and coalesce into a majority moderate party. Regardless of how improbable that currently sounds, our parties are overdue for a paradigm shift and neither represent any kind of cohesive political platform or ideal, they are merely brands that lose legitimacy and meaning each election cycle.

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