This piece is appearing as an op/ed this weekend in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).
People should pay more attention to the central role the Republican base is playing in the current American political drama.
For every article seeking to understand that base, there are probably hundreds about Donald Trump. But whatever important things might be said about Trump, Trump wouldn’t matter at all if it weren’t for the Republican base’s fervent support for him.
- It was the base that elevated Trump to the 2016 Republican nomination for President. The Republican establishment tried to stop Trump, but Republican primary voters made him the nominee.
- And then, after the 1/6 Insurrection, it was again the base that insisted that the Republican Party remain the Trump Party, intimidating the leaders of the Republican Party who clearly wanted to leave Trump behind. Then the Party capitulated to those three-fourth of the base that stayed committed to Trump.
The base first made him President, and now enables Trump to own the Party because the base will punish and reward whomever Trump tells them to.
So however one understands Trump’s impact on the nation, the reservoir of Trump’s power clearly lies in the way the majority of Republican voters think and believe and feel.
Which brings up where -- for all of my ongoing attempts to understand the base’s “state of consciousness” -- I, too, failed to foresee the vital role that base is playing in another part of our political drama: the upcoming Midterms.
Months ago I wrote about the apparent “trajectory” of the Midterm Elections, and the factors that might change it. The futures markets, at that time, were giving the Republicans a 75% probability of taking control of both houses of Congress.
Three of the four factors I cited as potentially changing the election outlook have had a visible impact, cutting the Republicans’ chances of controlling all of Congress almost by half.
- So many of Trump’s crimes have been exposed, producing some public backlash against the Trump Party.
- President Biden has made some use of his “bully pulpit” to warn against “threats to democracy.”
- The abortion decision of the Supreme Court has provoked a surprisingly powerful political backlash among the two-thirds of Americans who oppose that decision.
But what I failed to imagine was how the Republican base could change the picture through the kinds of candidates Republican primary voters would choose as their nominees. In particular, their nominees for the Senate.
In states around the country, Republican primaries have witnessed a repeat of that competition between the Republican Party power structure and the Republican base. The establishment wanted nominees that could be sold as normal Republicans. The base kept choosing candidates of the MAGA sort—endorsed by Trump, or making Trump’s “Stolen Election” Big Lie central to their campaigns.
In states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and now New Hampshire, the base has chosen candidates who might lose races that had looked winnable for the GOP.
The bases’ preference for the extreme is why the futures markets have cut in half the probability that the Republicans will control all of Congress.
Senator McConnell, whose main ambition seems to be to become Boss of the Senate again, makes oblique comments about “candidate quality,” gnashing his teeth as he watches the base lessening his chance of becoming Majority Leader.
I’ve been observing pretty closely the evolution of the Republican world for the past thirty years, and it was not always the case that the base was the source of toxicity—with our political dynamic becoming a constant conflict over things that are not true.
One could see – particularly when W was President – how that Spirit began at the top, while the base remained normal American conservatives. But it slowly filtered down into the state parties and into the base.
By the time we get to 2015-16, the base had been transformed.
Tens of millions of Americans had been brought to a frame of mind in it seemed a good idea to put the powers of the American Presidency in the hands of a man like Donald Trump.
(It was for its own use that the Party, employing amazingly effective methods of propaganda, had brought that base to that point. But Trump – an opportunistic outsider -- swooped in and hijacked the base the Party had cultivated, i.e. a base eager to put great power into the hands of someone with Trump’s extraordinary set of qualities.)
The fate of the Republican Party underscores an ancient message from many of the traditions: dabbling in the powers of darkness is dangerous.
This political story exemplifies the pattern shown in Gothic movies: the monster you create can turn and become your master. So now the base – whose consciousness the Republican Party long worked to fashion -- has compelled that Party to become the cowering and obedient slave of a leader the Party never wanted.
And it is that base – still calling the shots -- that may prevent the Republicans from gaining control of the Senate by their choosing candidates that might repel the American majority.
That’s what McConnell meant by “candidate quality.”
Nonetheless, it remains possible the Republican base will succeed as it did in 2016, when its extraordinary choice – Trump – won the Presidency. Rewarded for its dabbling in darkness.
The history of the 2022 Midterms remains to be written.