A little history on how we arrived at the brink of a violent overthrow of a duly elected government.
At the start of what would come to be known as the Reagan era, Republicans had an electoral majority that developed out of a long stretch of economic stagnation and white pushback to the civil rights gains of the 1960s. Between 1968 and 1988, Republicans won five of six presidential elections, four by landslide margins, as majorities soured on the policies of the Great Society and white Southerners realigned as Republicans. The Republican base splintered after reading George H. W. Bush’s lips when he agreed to raise taxes, and Democrats snuck into the presidency by winning 43% of the vote in 1992 — 2.5 points less than their previous nominee Michael Dukakis had secured en route to losing 40 states.
But the electorate was becoming more diverse, and by 1996 Bill Clinton was able to win close to a majority of the vote. The next two presidential elections would be close and competitive. At the turn of the century, Republicans could no longer count on racial and economic animus to keep them in power without an assist from the Supreme Court, and since George W. Bush’s narrow re-election victory in 2004 the party has not won a popular vote majority.
Normally, a string like that would cause a party to re-examine itself and change course, but Republicans have found ways to exercise power while sliding into the minority. As the country changed around them, a geographic fluke concentrated an emerging information age majority of young, multicultural, and secular voters in a minority of states, thereby greatly under-representing them in institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College. But national Republicans recognized that even with the advantages afforded by these institutions they were going to have to adjust to remain competitive as the Reagan coalition aged and disappeared. The RNC assessed the wreckage of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat and concluded that their racial, gender, religious and social intolerance was costing them a generation of supporters, and if they didn’t moderate their positions they stood to lose a second generation and face political oblivion.
Instead of following this advice, they took the easy way out, or what seemed easy in the short run. Two years earlier, the Tea Party backlash to the Obama administration swept a class of reactionary Republicans to power in states across the country, where they promptly used the advantage of fortuitous timing to redraw state and federal legislative maps in order to lock in Republican majorities. Thus began the effort to strong-arm republican institutions for electoral advantage. Gerrymandering certainly wasn’t new, and it was hardly the exclusive province of Republicans, but the extent and degree of gerrymandering was so pronounced that it began to disrupt the ordinary functioning of the two-party system. In extremely gerrymandered districts, where Democrats could not win, Republican incumbents feared only primary challenges from their right, pushing them away from the center and breaking down incentives to compromise. The ingredients for radicalization were there when Donald Trump stole the Republican base from a leadership that promised and failed to undermine the administration and legacy of the first Black president.
Unable to recalibrate in a way that would expand their appeal, Republicans became increasingly dependent on utilizing their power to bend the institutions of government to their advantage. Voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchised voters of color and extensive purges of voter rolls became more aggressive when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act on the strength of a majority made possible by holding the White House after losing the Electoral College in 2000.
When that majority was threatened by the death of Antonin Scalia during the last year of Obama’s term, the move toward undermining republican institutions took an ominous turn. Mitch McConnell abused his leadership of the Senate to prevent a hearing on Merrick Garland’s nomination to fill the seat, using a fabricated precedent about not seating a new justice in an election year. Four years later, McConnell dispatched with this rationale and rammed through the Supreme Court nominee of a Republican president who attained his office without benefit of the popular vote. More than hypocritical, McConnell made it clear that he had no problem using a legislative majority representing a minority of the country to pack the judiciary with the nominees of a president elected by a minority of the country, as he had been doing with the federal courts more broadly by expeditiously filling positions he had blocked when Obama was president.
It’s a short but significant step from bending the system to breaking it entirely, but it’s also the logical next step when the returns on undermining the system diminish. After four years under Trump, Republicans have lost the White House, the House and now the Senate. Trump himself tried leaning on everyone who stood in the way of a second term but nothing worked. When his lawsuits failed, when pressure on election officials failed, when pressure on Republican elected officials failed, when multiple state recounts failed, when he failed to stop the casting of electoral votes in November, and when he failed to convince Mike Pence that he had the authority to throw out electoral votes, Trump found himself out of options with the clock ticking down. At that moment, years of undermining the political system turned to overthrowing it as a last resort to cling to power.
In their rejection of the difficult work of moderating and modernizing their party — a project that would have required a long stretch in the political wilderness — it was inevitable that the interests of a Republican Party that lost its grip on the future would be increasingly at odds with the necessities of republican governance, like honoring election outcomes and recognizing the legitimacy of the opposition. Last Wednesday, we saw what it looks like when a desperate incumbent inspires his most militant supporters to insurrection against lawmakers who have the legal authority to certify the end of his regime. In today’s impeachment debate, we saw the lengths to which House Republicans, many representing gerrymandered districts, would go to excuse his actions.
But take note of those ten Republicans who broke with their party and voted to impeach, including the number three member of the Republican leadership. During the first impeachment there were no Republican defectors. And take note of the not-so-private rumination of Mitch McConnell, who has managed to let it leak that he thinks that maybe convicting Trump in the Senate would be a good way to make a clean break with a soon-to-be ex-president who threatens to complicate his party’s electoral prospects in perpetuity.
Ever the strategist, McConnell recognizes that as the details of last week’s insurrection come to light, the cost of defending it will mount. With Democrats soon to take the reigns of government, investigations are inevitable. Those who encouraged or participated in the planning of the attempted coup will face calls for sanctions. Their fellow Republicans will have to weigh in. And that is when we will learn how many Republicans feel it is in their best interest to walk back from the brink, how many are willing to embrace holding power by undemocratic means, and how the divide that appeared in today’s impeachment vote will shape the party’s future.