No large political organization is monolithic. There are always internal struggles over who will constitute the mainstream and who will be relegated to the margins. Often, the battle is between pragmatists and ideological purists. You can see such dynamics in both democratic and authoritarian parties around the world.
What is unusual for the Republicans today is that the struggle for the center of the party is not between ideological conservatives and moderates, but between Republicans in Congress who respect America’s democratic institutions and Trump loyalists who want to tear them down.
The intra-party divide has only grown deeper since the Jan. 6 insurrection by violent Trump supporters. On one side are “institutionalists” like Sens. Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and Todd Young and Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney.
On the “demolitionist” side are Trumpists like Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and perhaps Mike Braun, and scores of House members—including the sorts of people we used to dismiss as the “lunatic fringe”: unhinged conspiracy-mongers like Reps. Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks, Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
All of them spent months cynically propagating Trump’s big lie about a “stolen election,” which helped incite the insurrection. Greene, with her anti-Semitic tweets, advocacy of deadly violence against Democrats and other outrageous positions, is backed by former President Trump. But she is just the most extreme voice on the seditionist side of the divide.
On Jan. 12, Cheney (a traditional conservative and the third-highest-ranking House Republican) explained why she would join nine other Republicans to impeach Trump: “The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. … None of this would have happened without the president. The president could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution. I will vote to impeach the president.”
Since the impeachment, Cheney has come under assault by fellow GOP House members who saw her act of political courage as one of apostasy. Cheney is the face of responsible Republican institutionalists. Greene has led the attacks on Cheney and is quickly becoming a leader of the pro-Trump camp within the party.
On Feb. 1, McConnell drew a line in the sand and placed Greene on the other side: “Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” the Senate minority leader said of the QAnon congresswoman. “Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality. This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
The majority of Americans tend to be moderates, not extremists. If Greene and other radical Trumpist Republicans are not successfully marginalized, or if they prove able to remove Cheney from her leadership position, they could drive the GOP into political oblivion at the national level.
America needs a responsible center-right party. Given our entrenched two-party system, the GOP is not going to disappear. What is less certain is whether it will return to being a principled conservative party or devolve into a crackpot authoritarian cult.
Will the GOP become the party of Liz Cheney or Marjorie Taylor Greene? That is the question.•
Atlas is a professor of political science and was the founding director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.