Exactly two weeks before his term in office will end, President Trump addressed a rally by the White House at noon today—rambling and ranting in his typical fashion: staying silent about the pandemic, attacking the media and Big Tech, and feeding his audience from a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories.
He offered up a long litany of lies about the election results in states whose results he wants to dispute—Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, and Wisconsin. These distortions and exaggerations have been rebutted time and again by state election officials and rejected by state and federal officials.
He repeatedly invoked the name of Vice President Mike Pence, calling on him to do what neither the law nor the Constitution will permit and reject the votes of duly chosen and certified state electors. “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our country and the good of our Constitution. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you.” While Trump spoke, Pence released a statement saying he would do no such thing.
Trump’s main target aside from Pence was the “weak” Republicans who refused to indulge his “rigged election” fantasy—specifically naming Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Mitt Romney, and former attorney general Bill Barr (as well as his own Supreme Court nominees). He seemed, even more than usual, to relish devastating the party that made him its nominee for president five years ago.
A lost presidential re-election bid is now followed by the loss of two (!) Senate seats in the Georgia (!!) runoff elections handing nominal control of the Senate to the Democrats. As the House and Senate count the votes of the Electoral College and debate the various objections being raised by Trump-supporting representatives and senators, tens of thousands of red-capped, die-hard MAGA voters are marching down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Trump rally to the Capitol to engage in some light insurrection with Capitol Police eager to lift their voices—and in some cases, raise their fists—on behalf of ending American democracy.
This is the Trump supernova. Like political parties, so-called “degenerate” stars tend to die in a rather spectacular fashion. With some kinds of stars, when the last of the nuclear fuel is consumed, a sudden expansion streams out massive quantities of solar mass and electromagnetic radiation, and often leaves behind a black hole—an object with a gravitational pull so strong that even light cannot escape it. It’s best not to be in the neighborhood when it happens.
Some GOP operatives and pro-Trump commentators are trying to blast their way out of this gravity field, pretending they haven’t been there cheering on a modern Know-Nothing populist movement that has destabilized American politics for the past five years. The Trump presidency is dying, but the explosive energy of Trumpism is about to consume what remains of the institutional GOP.
Trump and his family have already signaled that any Republican who publicly opposes efforts to derail the Biden win during today’s joint session of Congress risks a primary challenge two years from now. Such threats are cheap to make, and with this White House all too common, but their self-executing nature makes them important: Trump doesn’t have to organize it or recruit primary candidates; they are just as likely to “bubble up” as Trumpist zealots see a chance to knock off incumbents who weaken themselves by refusing to validate Trump’s electoral fantasies. The problem, of course, is that the capacity to win GOP primaries increasingly bears an inverse relationship to the ability to win a general election outside the most gerrymandered and radicalized Republican districts. If the Republican party is unable to regain a broadly popular governing philosophy, it risks falling into a semi-permanent minority in the same way the California GOP has run aground since the Pete Wilson governorship, gradually surrendering legislative majorities and thereby turning the home of Reagan into a one-party state crumbling under the weight of unchecked liberal orthodoxy.
This state of affairs is the culmination of a big fight that started after the GOP captured the House of Representatives under Newt Gingrich. Since 1995, there has been a continuous, if often low-level, war among Republicans about the best way to build a majority. On one side have been those who argued for more racial and ethnic diversity, à la the 2012 Republican autopsy, along with ideological allowances for members in marginal districts. As recently as November 3, this strategy seemed to bear fruit in the election of a slate of GOP women and minorities to the House. On the other side have been the purists and extremists who insist that strict conformity is the path to a majority, even if that path runs temporarily through a smaller, more ideologically homogeneous minority.
Trump has truncated the three-decade argument by collapsing all policy into himself and his politics of grievance, up or down, yea or nay. At least half and perhaps more of the party’s rank-and-file concur that Trump himself—not national defense, or social conservatism, or tax rates—is the test of true Republicanism. He has become the red supergiant of Republican politics, burning the planets in his orbit and threatening explosion. A few in the GOP—Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse—have, for the moment, pulled against Trump’s perverse gravity while others, like Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and a hundred or so GOP House members, have embraced it. The split between the Always-, Sometimes- and Never-Trump factions is likely to destroy the GOP’s electoral position from within.
There’s another thing about supernovae: When a large star explodes, it rapidly builds up new elements, flinging them out into the universe, enabling the formation of new nebulae, asteroids, planets—and even new stars. Whether the conservatism being ejected from the GOP can build new institutions in time to protect American democracy from both populism and one-party rule remains very much in question.