Ignore the hype of Republicans threatening to ‘break away’ over Trump

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Over 100 Republicans, including former officials, threaten to split” from the Republican party, the New York Times declared on Tuesday. The next day the Washington Post upped the ante, headlining that the 100 Republicans were vowing “civil war”; the columnist Jennifer Rubin proclaimed the beginning of “the stampede away from the GOP”.

Sounds exciting, but what has really happened?

On Thursday, a group of some 150 former Republicans published “A Call for American Renewal”, a manifesto with the stated aim of “building a common sense coalition for America”. The call itself reads mostly like the US constitution but with a distinct anti-Trump undertone. While the former president is never named, the manifesto warns against “forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism”, opposes “the employment of fear-mongering, conspiracism, and falsehoods”, and rejects “populism and illiberalism”. It emphasizes the importance of the constitutional order, rule of law, and pluralism, while implicitly supporting immigration and explicitly celebrating “our diverse nation”. So far, so good; but is this anodyne statement worth all the hype?

Active office-holders, with power and relevance, are conspicuously absent from the signatories

The document’s signatories include many of the usual suspects of the Never-Trump right, including people associated with the Lincoln Project, like George Conway and Jennifer Horn. It also includes a lot of “formers”: the former US representative Charlie Dent, the former secretary of transportation Mary Peters, the former governor Tom Ridge, and the former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. But while these former office-holders express support for current Republican “rebels” like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, people such as Cheney and Romney themselves – active office-holders, with power and relevance - are conspicuously absent from the signatories. I doubt they will go much further than a non-committal positive reference, when asked or pushed by journalists.

For all the media spin about “influential Republicans” or “Republican leaders”, none of the 150 signatories currently holds a significant position within the Republican party. In fact, the vast majority are people past their political career or who never were politicians. Many of them are probably better known to Democratic voters than Republican ones. During the Trump presidency, figures such as Max Boot and Michael Steele became liberals’ favorite “Republicans” largely by featuring primarily in liberal media.

Related: The point of the Republican party? To stroke the ego of Trump | Richard Wolffe

This is probably why this manifesto is vague about the concrete actions its signatories hope to achieve. Despite hints and recent media speculation, the document makes no explicit call for a third party. In fact, one gets the sense that the organizers are internally divided over strategy – and, for that reason, leaving all options open. Under the subheading “What’s the Call?”, the document reads: “That’s why we believe in pushing for the Republican Party to rededicate itself to founding ideals – or else hasten the creation of an alternative.”

In essence, the whole manifesto is a real-world extension of the largely online Lincoln Project. Like the Lincoln Project, it offers a psychologically reassuring but ultimately questionable narrative frame for anti-Trump Republicans: the “soul” of the Republican party, which has been stolen or crushed by Trump and his wannabes, is at stake, and honorable Republicans must restore it. This is grounded in an elitist view of the Grand Old Party that rests on very loose empirical and historical grounds. As I’ve argued many times before, Trump did not hijack the party, at least not in ideological terms. In fact, for several decades the views of the Republican base had much more in common with Trump than with the signatories of this manifesto. That empirical fact will not change, no matter how hard the Lincoln Project and Never-Trump Republicans try to whitewash the Republican past – a whitewashing the liberal media happily amplifies.

This is the Republican party of an imagined past, harkening to a moderate, noble era that never really existed

Evan McMullin, who gained some media prominence by running as an independent candidate against Trump in 2016 – he won a whopping 0.54% of the vote – seems to at least acknowledge the current reality. In an interview with Fox News, he estimated that just “a fourth to a third of the party” wants a new direction. He added, rather optimistically: “Obviously that’s still a minority of the party but it’s a significant number.” Even assuming that all these people want to move the party in the same direction as the signatories of the “Call for American Renewal”, a fourth to a third of Republicans would be a mere sliver of the general population. While this would be more than enough to start a new party in the proportional electoral systems common in other countries, it is, under the United States’ two-party system, nowhere near enough to challenge the Republican party, let alone the Democratic party.

Don’t get me wrong. It is great that at least some former prominent Republicans are willing to stand up to Trump and for liberal democracy. But this initiative is not a serious competitor to the current Trumpian Republican party and it will not be the Republican party of the future. It does not even reflect the Republican Party of the past. Instead, it is the Republican party of an imagined past, harkening to a moderate, noble era that never really existed. Amplifying the anti-Trump Republicans’ message uncritically, as many liberal media and politicians are doing, will not make them more relevant within the Republican party. However, it might help them further whitewash their own pasts as well as that of the Republican party.

  • Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, the author of The Far Right Today (2019), and host of the podcast Radikaal. He is a Guardian US columnist