Members Only | November 30, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Another GOP ‘civil war’? We know how that story ends

We’ve already heard it.

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Mitch McConnell’s chief skill, above strategic cynicism, is the ability to look deeply concerned about matters of grave consequence. 

His “grave face” was out Tuesday: “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism, for white supremacy. Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, is highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”

The allusion was to Donald Trump. The criminal former president dined over the weekend with Nick Fuentes and Kanye West, two of the highest profile Jew-haters. (Fuentes is particularly repugnant.) 

There’s good reason why that might not be apparent. The Washington press corps does things to justify doing what they want to do. First, pretend history didn’t happen.

The headlines were good for Trump, who needs the antisemite vote, and for the antisemites. Rarely have they gotten as much attention since the days of Charles Lindberg and Father Charles Coughlin. 

McConnell’s remarks, with those of leading Republicans, seem to suggest that the gap between them and Trump is widening apace. 

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who’s less “grave face” than “avuncular face,” told CNN that “it’s not a good idea for a leader that’s setting an example for the country and the party to meet with [an] avowed racist and antisemite. … You want to diminish their strength, not empower them. Stay away from them.” 

But the gap isn’t a gap. Nor is it widening. 

We’re seeing political people acting politically. That’s all it is. After a midterm but before an election, no one knows who among the Republicans will lead. Make no mistake, though. When a leader becomes apparent, recent moral clarity will melt into the air.

Waiting for a winner
“Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, is highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States,” McConnell said. There’s good reason for skepticism.

There’s also good reason why that reason might not be apparent. The Washington press corps does things to justify doing what they want to do. First, pretend history didn’t happen. From there, they can tell the story – again – about a civil war inside the Republican Party, with Trump on one side and “establishment Republicans” on the other. 

Reruns are never as exciting as the original, though. 

We know why the Republicans are acting this way. We know what they will do in the end. We’ve already seen it. Lindsey Graham had said that “if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it.” Then the senator became Trump’s leading confidante.

Which is to say, they’ll get behind the winner.

For the moment, that’s not Trump. 

Some Republicans say he lost three in a row: the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 Georgia run-off. (Others add a fourth, the lower than expected gains in the 2022 midterms.)

But this three-time loser story has a subtext – the fast-ascending status of Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor crushed his Democratic opponent. That fueled breathless talk of a 2024 presidential bid. 

This binary lies beneath recent stories about Trump supporters second-guessing their support. Rolling Stone reported that white evangelical Protestants, Trump’s staunchest supporters, seem unsure. They got what they wanted from him – Roe fell – but suddenly they have reasonsreasonsreasons to “stay on the sidelines.”

The Times reported Israel hardliners previously in Trump’s corner also seem unsure. That dinner with antisemites is said to be one of those reasonsreasonsreasons. “I am a child of survivors. I have become very frightened for my people,” Morton Klein, head of the rightwing Zionist Organization of America, said. “Donald Trump is not an antisemite. He loves Israel. He loves Jews. But he mainstreams, he legitimizes Jew hatred and Jew haters. And this scares me.”

Yeah, well. 

The same thing could be said – the same thing was said – in 2017 after Trump appeared to, um, legitimize Jew hatred and Jew haters. 

He said throngs of white-power protesters in Charlottesville weren’t all that bad. Sure, they chanted “the Jews will not replace us.” But evidently, that wasn’t enough to dampen the enthusiasm of rightwing Jews who had yet to get what they wanted out of Trump’s tenure.

These people, like leading Republicans, are not “Trump defectors.” (Yes, the press corps keeps hinting hard at that.) What they are is cold-blooded partisans waiting to see, as they did in 2015, where the GOP base might go, especially at Fox and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Wherever the base goes, the party leaders go, too. 

There’s only one reason GOP leaders and allies are not all-in for Trump right now. It’s not because Trump legitimized Jew hatred and Jew haters. It’s because an alternative appears to have materialized. 

Savior of the Republican Party?
Has it?

I mean, sure. Florida loves DeSantis. But Florida is not the rest of the country, nor is it the rest of the national Republican Party. And anyway, the presumption is that, during the Republican primaries, DeSantis would beat Trump in his own state. Why? Because Ron DeSantis is its governor? I don’t see why that presumption is sound.

It seems to me the Republicans are waiting to see who’s going to emerge stronger even as they process more data coming out of the midterms. If the base picks Trump over DeSantis, the GOP might lose the support of what I call “respectable white people,” those voters who made Democratic victories possible three times in a row.

Perry Bacon said Sunday that “the surprisingly strong performance of Democrats in the US House and in many gubernatorial and Senate races was in large part because the pro-Democratic suburban surge of the 2018 and 2020 elections didn’t ebb too much in 2022.” 

Bacon’s suburbanites are my respectable white people. 

Wherever they go, so go national elections. 

DeSantis Salvatoris might not be enough.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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