Republicans haven’t used the impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump to question the underlying facts of the case Democrats are making against him. Instead, they’ve gone all in for Trump, echoing conspiracy theories and pushing alternative narratives for conservative media to consume.
Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee ranking member from California, spent most of his time at the November 13 hearing railing against the media. “Anyone familiar with the Democrats’ scorched-earth war against President Trump,” he said, “would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is just a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”
Other Republicans, like Jim Jordan (R-OH), obsessed over the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint initiated the impeachment process. The point, of course, was to divert attention away from the substance of the claims (which were already corroborated by transcripts released by Trump’s own White House).
There really is no doubt that Trump did what Democrats accused him of doing. But so far, Republicans have been unwilling to admit it. They may be dishonest, and they’re almost certainly acting in bad faith, but are they being irrational? Not necessarily.
I reached out to David Jolly, a former GOP Congress member from Florida. Jolly left Congress in 2017 and has since renounced his membership in the Republican Party. He explained his reasoning in an article last year, rejecting not only Donald Trump, but what the Republican Party had become.
“Republicans in Congress,” he told me, are now “tearing at the fabric of the Constitution every bit as much as Donald Trump” and “undermining the institution of Congress every bit as much as Trump.”
We talked about what that means, why Republicans have been forced into an impossible position by Trump, and why Trump’s impact on the party will continue long after he leaves office.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You’ve been watching the impeachment hearings in Congress the last few weeks. What do you make of the Republican strategy so far?
As a short-term strategy, it will probably work in terms of ensuring an acquittal in the US Senate and preventing any erosion of the GOP base. Which is huge since Trump can’t win without replicating his 2016 victory, and that means narrowly pulling off a few key states and he can’t do that without firing up the core supporters.
As for Congress, I think we just have to recognize how culturally broken our politics is. There is real animosity between the two sides that gets reinforced due to gerrymandered districts that insulate members from accountability, and we have a media environment that funnels partisan news to target audiences.
That’s all true, but you were just in Congress. You know these people. I assume you still talk to them. What are they thinking?
I can’t tell you how many Republican members of Congress have told me, “I’m just trying to keep my head down and not get noticed.” They see all the excitement stirred up by people like Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes but at least half the caucus wants to stay the hell out of the media. They’re not looking to make a name through this, they’re looking to survive this.
I struggle with whether some of their behaviors are an intentional decision on their part to engage in either misdirection, or to overlook the facts because they have a fealty to the president or because they want to put a stake in the ground in right-wing media or because it just works in their districts. Or are some of them just duped into it by following the leader?
I honestly don’t know. It’s probably a mix of all of the above.
Well, Trump has exposed a lot about who we are as a country and who Republicans are as a party. But the partisanship problem is less about the people in the party and more about the structural forces driving hyper-partisan decision-making. The big three for me are gerrymandering, closed primaries, and big money. All of this puts so much pressure on people to conform or compromise.
If we unrigged the system, if we had competitive districts with open primaries and public financing, you’d see people behaving very differently because there would be a completely different reward structure. Right now the only way to get reelected is to act like a hyper-partisan. As long as that’s the case, we won’t get value-driven decision-making.
Maybe we’re missing something there, maybe the revelation of Trump is that Republican politics was never value-driven at all. I mean, if values are anchored to rewards in that way, if they’re that fluid, are they really values? Maybe it’s just about power and the means thereto.
Yeah, it’s a fair point. Maybe you’re right.
What does the Republican Party look like in two or five or 10 years?
The Republican Party is in long-term trouble. The demographics of the nation are shifting away from hardcore Republican conservatism and they’re basically doubling down on that while relying on these rigged elements of the system to help them keep power. That’s not a good place to be in.
The reason Trump won was because he brought in populism, not conservatism. I don’t see who follows that. Who’s the populist in the Republican Party that comes next? I don’t see one. I think it’s a return to conservatism and largely white male flyover state conservatism, which statistically just isn’t going to put Republicans in office a decade from now.