John Hennen doubts the GOP learned its lesson from the red wave that wasn’t.
“I hope this latest election will at least give some of them pause, but I’m not very optimistic that it will,” said the retired Morehead State University historian.
Republicans figured — and Democrats feared — that President Biden’s low poll ratings all but guaranteed that the GOP would flip the House and Senate by hefty margins. Historically, the party that controls the White House loses seats anyway.
But Biden’s party boosted its Senate majority by one, to 51 to 49. (Independents Angus King, Bernie Sanders, and now Kyrsten Sinema, caucus with the Democrats.) The Republicans managed only a bare House majority.
Most high-profile Trump-endorsed candidates lost. Their defeat, plus Trump's mounting legal troubles that may land him in prison, his tumbling poll numbers, and an especially inept rollout of his 2024 reelection campaign, has pundits predicting his imminent doom-for the umpteenth time.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, heretofore among the most fawning of Trump sycophants, seems ready to challenge his erstwhile hero in the race for the GOP nod. DeSantis clobbered Trump in one recent poll. (But Trump pounded DeSantis in another poll.)
DeSantis, Hennen said, is all about messaging and “sanitizing Trumpism. He’s not giving up on bigotry.”
He said once DeSantis and other “pretenders” for the nomination get on the debate stage with Trump, “he’ll chew them up and spit them out.”
Anyway, Hennen isn’t ready to jump on the Trump-is-toast bandwagon. Though DeSantis and some other GOP bigwig pols, donors, and a certain millionaire MAGA media mogul are distancing themselves from Trump, the historian doubts MAGA base voters, nearly all of them white, are ready to forsake their Great White Hope.
Robert Reich doesn’t think so either. “They worship him,” he wrote in LA Progressive. “They won’t budge. But until they budge, most Republican lawmakers won’t budge either (Romney and Liz Cheney being notable exceptions, and we know what happened to her).”
Hennen agrees. “Trump is making it okay to be open with the prejudices they’ve always had.”
He said the Trump base looks a lot like the base that sustained white supremacist Southern Democrats like Sens. Strom Thurmond (who switched to the GOP), Richard Russell, and Theodore Bilbo for decades. More on Bilbo in a minute.
Trump ran the most overtly racist presidential campaigns since segregationist George Wallace, a former Alabama governor, sought the White House in 1968. Taking their cue from Trump, a slew of current GOP candidates — not just Southerners — pander non-stop to racism (and sexism, nativism, homophobia, and Christian nationalism). White grievance politics was Wallace’s stock-in-trade; Trump has made it a Republican standby.
While most Dixie Dems coddled the Klan, the GOP base includes armed, far right-wing neo-Nazi and white nationalist militia groups. (When former Klan leader David Duke tossed his hat in the ring for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in Louisiana in 2016, he said Trump voters were “of course” his voters.)
Too, MAGA Republican office holders and office seekers push “the great replacement,” the discredited far-right-wing conspiracy theory that liberals aim to boost their political power by replacing white, native-born citizens with nonwhite immigrants.
The Washington Post reported that Bilbo, a virulently racist-and antisemitic-Mississippi senator from 1935 to 1947, proposed a version of the replacement theory in his 1947 book, Separation or Mongrelization: Take Your Choice. He wrote that whites created “the great civilizations of the ages” while Blacks destroyed them. “A white America or a mongrel America – you must take your choice!” Bilbo added
Republicans hotly deny they are a party of bigots. “If you refuse to confront and resist racism in your circle, you are legitimizing it,” Hennen said. “That makes you at best a ‘genteel’ racist.”
He said establishment Republican politicians like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brought Trump and Trumpism on themselves. Hennen recalled how GOP leaders “rolled over for the Tea Party fanatics,” the precursor to the MAGA movement.
Politicians like McConnell “have found a way to convince themselves that whatever they do, even if it’s distasteful to them personally, it’s for the greater good,” meaning whatever’s good for their tenure in office and the GOP.
“They have to depend on these fanatics,” Hennen said, suggesting that the only way for the party to rid itself of Trump and Trumpism would be for “a critical mass of Republicans in Congress and state legislatures to start issuing public manifestos distancing themselves from Trump and the type of person he appeals to.
“It would have to be some kind of organized caucus that would disavow Trump and MAGA mouthpieces by name, but I don’t see it happening. Any fair-minded, decent Republican would be hated out of the party. That’s happening already.”
Eleven Republicans who voted to impeach Trump retired or were primaried out of office.
He suggested that in the new House of Representatives, presumptive speaker Kevin McCarthy “will probably have a hotline to Trump” and that Jim Jordan, the expected judiciary committee chairman, “will use his power to elevate Trump once again.”
He proposed that current criticism of Trump from within Republican ranks will cease “as soon as he starts winning primaries. If he loses one, he’ll say it was rigged, which will further reinvigorate the election deniers.”
Hennen said Trump was easily the most dangerous president the country has ever had. “I don't know that there’s ever been one that exhibited anything even close to the depth of venality, in both the personal and policy spheres, that Trump represents. Trump far outpaces Nixon in terms of willingness to do damage.”