The Republican Party is facing an unprecedented crisis. Its leading 2024 presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, is going on trial for serious federal crimes involving threats to national security and lies to the FBI. But even if Trump is acquitted—potentially with the help of a judge he appointed—he would not be out of the legal woods. Trump will likely face even more serious charges for attempting to coerce the Georgia Secretary of State to tamper with the 2020 election. He may also be charged with federal crimes related to the attempted January 6 coup. Throughout it all, Trump has remained unrepentant, attacking law enforcement and refusing to listen to his lawyers.
Trump is not just a danger to the country and an embarrassment to his party. He is also a proven electoral liability, having weighed down Republican fortunes in the last three election cycles. And yet, his legal problems have only elevated his positioning in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the rest of the field. Even though the party leaders know Trump is a liability, they remain silent or vocally defend him.
A normal, rational political party would jettison Trump and find a more reputable champion for its policies. But today’s Republican Party is not normal. It has seemingly abandoned basic political reasoning and lost its self-preservation instincts. Conventional wisdom in political science says the party decides who its nominees will be. But who makes the decisions in today’s GOP?
One answer is that Trump is in charge, singlehandedly bending the party to his will and putting his self-interest ahead of the party’s. But this explanation fails to explain why most influential conservatives and Republican leaders don’t try to change this dynamic.
More importantly, it misreads Trump himself. The man has bigotries, manias, and obsessions and has done much to imprint them onto the Republican Party. But he is more a sheep than a shepherd. His fervently held opinions reflect what he last saw on TV or social media. He usually agrees with whomever he spoke to most recently. Like any good showman, he tests his talking points and applause lines in front of his adoring crowds.
If Trump were really in charge, liberal views on abortion and LGBTQ rights would have become accepted among Republicans, similar to how Trump helped many Republicans memory hole their advocacy for Social Security cuts. But instead, one of the world’s most famous irreligious libertines has caved to the extreme religious right.
Trump’s most legitimately successful policy initiative was the creation of vaccines through Operation Warp Speed. He tried to take credit for that in his speeches but was booed by his otherwise supportive crowds and has since largely stopped talking about it.
Fox News and other conservative media outlets are often credited with being the real leaders. There is something to this: Republican politicians are far more afraid of Fox News personalities than vice versa.
However, one interesting result of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit was the revelation that Fox News is terrified of its own viewers. Fox News executives feared that if they failed to toe the line on Trump’s lies about the election and many other issues, their viewers would abandon them for competing far-right TV networks Newsmax and One America News Network.
Nor are the billionaire GOP donors really in charge. The famed Koch network pulled its support from Trump long ago and has launched a so far unsuccessful campaign to defeat him because they believe he cannot win a general election. Newly empowered MAGA politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are not darlings of the donor class, who prefer less overtly divisive candidates who will cut taxes for the wealthy without disrupting global trade.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the GOP base is in control of the party. Trump succeeds because he appears to be one of them. He vents their rage, watches the same television, shares the same vitriolic personality, and wears the same hatreds. He is less their leader than their reflection. Fox News is expert not at manipulating the base—though its editorial choices do certainly accomplish that to some extent—but at stoking its outrage. Big donors don’t so much generate the passions around which the base revolves as they help provide the financial fuel to turn those passions into electoral victories and legislative action.
Poll after poll shows that Republican base voters are far more extreme in their policy views than most of the rest of the electorate. They weren’t pushed that way: They appear to be doing the pushing.
This, in turn, has consequences for the left. The traditional leftist model sees most conservative base voters as potential working-class allies duped by corporations to vote against their interests. But increasingly, these voters seem to be driving the bus in the conservative movement and Republican Party. If social and cultural values are their primary concern, they won’t care if Democrats would better serve their economic interests. Fox News, GOP donors, and even Trump largely dance to their tune, not vice versa.
The more moderate theory of change suggests that once Trump is gone—and perhaps once Fox News is deplatformed—the fever will break, and the GOP will return to normal. That also appears to be a fantasy. Anyone who doubts it should look no further than Trump’s would-be heir, Ron DeSantis, who seems even more authoritarian and farther to the right than Trump.
Republicans are not going to become more moderate in the foreseeable future. They feel under siege by the cosmopolitan values of the modern world and actively select candidates and news sources who cater to cruelty, paranoia, conspiracy-mongering, and authoritarianism.
The only way to fix our broken politics is to enact structural reforms to ensure that America’s majority coalition of progressives, liberals, and moderates can govern when it wins electoral majorities—as it consistently does—and that Republicans are not able to impose extreme minority positions despite losing popular referenda. When that happens, the GOP will either disappear as an effective political party or be forced to realign with positions and messaging capable of winning durable majorities.
The one ray of hope is that the conservative base is shrinking as a share of the electorate. Voters under 40 are much more progressive than their elders. Conservative religious denominations are shrinking. More people are moving to cities, and the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in eight of the last nine presidential elections.
America will survive this onslaught from the radical conservative right—but only if the opinions of the majority are reflected in the halls of power.