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Republicans in Disarray

Osita Nwanevu
8 min read
An AI rendering of Trump attempting to escape arrest across an NYC road with policemen in pursuit.
An AI rendering of Trump escaping arrest.

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.

Recent Work

I wrote a short column about Trump’s indictment (remember that?) for The Guardian recently:

Trump’s prosecution is a triumph. Not a shame. Not a tragedy. A triumph ⁠— one of the great events in American presidential history. The public and the pundits might disagree by the end of Trump’s trial in Manhattan ⁠— perhaps the first of a few ⁠— but the significance of what district attorney Alvin Bragg has managed to do will be wholly unsullied, in substance, by the outcome of his case.
One of the major questions in American political and legal thought has been whether presidents may be allowed to commit crimes. As it stands, the position of the Justice Department is that they may ⁠— for half a century, it has held that a president cannot face criminal prosecution while in office. And while there’s not even a theoretical bar to prosecuting a president once they leave office, no one had ever tried it, leaving the question of whether criminal laws functionally apply to presidents at all, as a practical matter, a matter of speculation.
Here Alvin Bragg has bravely taken a stand: a person may, in fact, be indicted for a crime even if they were once president— just as though they were an ordinary person to whom laws applied. This is tremendous news. No rifts have opened in the time-space continuum. Frogs, locusts, and lice have yet to descend upon Manhattan. For the time being, it appears that a prosecutor really may attempt to hold a president ⁠— or at least a former president ⁠— accountable for a suspected crime without reality collapsing in on itself.


The indictment has been largely overtaken in the press by other stories we’ll get to in a moment, but we should note the impact it’s had ⁠— thus far, support for Trump among Republican voters has only deepened even as he’s taken another hit in wider public opinion. In the immediate aftermath of the indictment, analysts across the press argued Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s case would prove unconvincing to many voters and might even bolster Trump’s general standing. But that’s not what the numbers we’ve gotten say. From ABC:

The announcement of formal charges has nudged public opinion slightly against Trump, particularly among independent voters. As of April 1, exactly half of the public said the charges against Trump were either very or somewhat serious, and 36% said they were not. Now, after the indictment has been unsealed and the public has heard Trump's condemnation of the investigation, 52% find the charges very or somewhat serious, and 39% deem the charges not too serious or not serious at all.
But either way, more Americans are making up their minds -- While 14% of the public did not know how they felt about the severity of the charges as of April 1, that figure has shrunk to 8%. Independents had an 11-point point shift in their views of the severity of the views, the polling showed. Last week, 43% of independents found the charges very or somewhat serious. This group, a critical voting bloc for the once-again presidential candidate, has swung against him, as 54% now say the same [...] Slightly more Americans (48%) also believe Trump should suspend his bid for the White House, compared to the 43% who suggested so in the last ABC News/Ipsos poll. Again, independents were most likely to shift on this question, going from 41% saying he should suspend his campaign on April 1 to 52% now.

Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis, who only grew more forthright in Trump’s defense as the indictment drew nearer, is redoubling his efforts to out-Trump Trump on immigration with what The New York Times is calling “the toughest crackdown on undocumented immigration by any state in more than a decade”:

Expected to pass within weeks because Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers, the bills are part of what Mr. DeSantis describes as a response to President Biden’s “open borders agenda,” which he said has allowed an uncontrolled flow of immigrants to cross into the United States from Mexico.
The bills would expose people to felony charges for sheltering, hiring and transporting undocumented immigrants; require hospitals to ask patients their immigration status and report to the state; invalidate out-of-state driver’s licenses issued to undocumented immigrants; prevent undocumented immigrants from being admitted to the bar in Florida; and direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to provide assistance to federal authorities in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
Mr. DeSantis has separately proposed eliminating in-state college tuition for undocumented students and beneficiaries of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, who were brought to the United States as young children. The tuition law was enacted by his predecessor Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. senator, in 2014.

None of these measures or their likely fallout are going to endear DeSantis to general election voters and it’s not at all obvious that the pain they’ll cause will actually boost DeSantis in the primary ⁠after — especially if, as has been reported, he intends to forfeit the early states to Trump and hope he can make up ground later. But moves like this were inevitable; we saw candidates make desperate leaps to Trump’s right in 2016, like Ted Cruz’s mostly forgotten proposal to initiate police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods. (Incidentally, NBC reported Monday that Cruz is now trying to soften his image for Texas’ political center as he looks to reelection, a strategy that involves talking up bipartisan work like “legislation to require that consumers be informed if their refrigerators or other home appliances have recording capabilities.”)

The tricky thing here for DeSantis, and the party’s pols as a whole, is that donors, strategists, and even some pundits have gotten very antsy ⁠— not just about Trump, but about the electoral carnage the Dobbs decision has evidently brought about, most recently in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race. In the week since, voices like Ann Coulter have urged pro-lifers to claim victory with Dobbs and call off tighter restrictions on abortion ⁠— which, rather inconveniently for the establishment voices who’ve egged them on for 50 years, are exactly why pro-lifers wanted an end to Roe in the first place.

The backlashes to Trump, abortion, and the right’s other excesses aren’t enough to save Democrats or build durable power for the left in this country, but it’s plain that Republican pathologies are starting to get very costly, electorally speaking. And the recognition of that reality among some is deepening the internal divides among Republican elites and decision-makers, even if not among Republican voters themselves. Republicans in the House, for instance, are beginning to split on whether they should bother putting together an actual policy agenda. From CNN:

With little room for error in their razor-thin majority, Republicans have so far struggled to deliver on key priorities like the border and the budget amid their internal divisions – though they have notched some symbolic victories on energy and education, while actually succeeding in overturning a DC crime bill.
Despite the handful of successes, the party’s more vulnerable members are frustrated with how the House Republican majority has so far spent its time in power, which has also included a heavy focus on investigations and running defense for former President Donald Trump.
“I’m concerned about the kind of legislation that we’re working on, and what we’re talking about,” Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who represents a swing district, told CNN. “We just spent the last week talking about paying off porn stars, and that doesn’t get us anywhere closer to solving the inflation crisis, it doesn’t inch further to finding ways to protect women. … I’ve been very disappointed with what we’re doing right now.”
Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, a moderate and outspoken critic of the GOP’s hardline border security bills, was even blunter: “I don’t have time to sit around all day long and drink scotch and bullsh*t about bills that have no chance of passing into law.”

It’ll take a while ⁠— likely the next few years ⁠— for Republicans to settle on a vision for the party’s future beyond, or at least besides Trump. Until then, they’ll work to mitigate the damage the Trump years and the culture wars have done in two ways. The first is the continuation of efforts to limit the franchise. The New York Times just published a refreshingly frank and straightforward article on the motives behind crackdowns on student voting recently. It’s a bit encouraging that results on this front have been mixed:

Alarmed over young people increasingly proving to be a force for Democrats at the ballot box, Republican lawmakers in a number of states have been trying to enact new obstacles to voting for college students.
In Idaho, Republicans used their power monopoly this month to ban student ID cards as a form of voter identification.
But so far this year, the new Idaho law is one of few successes for Republicans targeting young voters.
Attempts to cordon off out-of-state students from voting in their campus towns or to roll back preregistration for teenagers have failed in New Hampshire and Virginia. Even in Texas, where 2019 legislation shuttered early voting sites on many college campuses, a new proposal that would eliminate all college polling places seems to have an uncertain future.

As we’ve seen over the last decade or so, these kinds of shenanigans can only get Republicans so far. This is where the second strategy comes in ⁠— intensifying their drive to make policy from the courts. Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk showed us exactly what that drive will increasingly look like with his ruling killing the FDA’s approval of the abortion drug mifepristone on Friday. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern:

Kacsmaryk’s ruling is indefensible from top to bottom and will go down in history as one of the judiciary’s most shocking and lawless moments. It goes even further than expected, raising the possibility that he will impose “fetal personhood,” which holds that every state must ban abortion because it murders a human. Within an hour of its release, the decision also spurred the start of a constitutional crisis: A federal judge in Washington swiftly issued a dueling injunction compelling the FDA to continue allowing mifepristone in 17 states and District of Columbia, which brought a separate suit in Washington.
Kacsmaryk stayed his decision for one week to let the Biden administration appeal, but his ruling stands a good chance of being upheld at the radically conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If his order takes effect, the FDA will be faced with competing, mutually exclusive court orders requiring the agency to simultaneously suspend mifepristone nationwide and preserve access to the drug in 18 blue jurisdictions. The agency cannot comply with both orders at once. And because Kacsmaryk’s is broader, covering all 50 states, it guarantees that mifepristone will be suspended in much of the country. Only the Supreme Court can resolve this looming crisis, and it has a very limited window of time in which to do so.

This is precisely what all the right-wing investment in stuffing the judiciary has been designed to accomplish ⁠— the Harlan Crows of conservative politics have been out not to buy votes but to ensure that they won’t have to worry about votes terribly to begin with. They cultivate the right people, spread them throughout the courts at every opportunity, and provide venues for party activists and business elites to access and influence them ⁠— partially to prevent, as TNR’s Matt Ford notes shrewdly in a recent piece, the ideological drift that might occur with an extended amount of time on the bench. The frustrating truth is that no election lost over Trump’s indictment or the fraying of abortion rights is going to pull Clarence Thomas off the Court. And though it’s a factor they don’t actually control, they may as well bet on the Democratic Party continuing to avoid serious conversation about reforming the judiciary or curbing its power in the near term. All told, things are getting messier on the right. That is plain. But a Republican Party in disarray won’t be a party disempowered.

A Song

“Beyond Belief” ⁠— Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1982)