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Jonathan Bernstein

Is the Republican Party Headed for a Schism?

A few former officials breaking away is no big deal. If any current politicians join them, the party is in trouble.

It’s not for everyone.

It’s not for everyone.

Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

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The House impeachment managers did a good job of laying out their case against former President Donald Trump on Wednesday, to what will most likely be little effect in the Senate. Perhaps a few more Republicans will join the six who voted to keep the trial going on Tuesday, but it’s just as likely that only four or five will ultimately vote to convict Trump, despite what appears to be an overwhelming case against him.

The truth is that a lot of Republicans seem willing to let the party become more and more Trumpy. That means being comfortable playing footsie with white supremacist and other violent groups; eager to make voting more difficult and even to overturn election results when necessary; and generally less and less supportive of the rule of law and democracy. A party like that, with little aspiration to appeal to anyone beyond its strongest supporters, might still be competitive electorally thanks to the way two-party politics tends to work. And if it wins, it could put most of its efforts into tilting the rules more in its favor.

But plenty of Republicans find Trump and his politics abhorrent, including a lot of governing and campaign professionals and a fair number of former elected officials. One such group is considering formally breaking away and forming a new party. Whether a real schism is possible comes down to one thing: Will any current Republican politicians take the plunge and join them?

Traditionally, third parties are thought to have difficulties in first-past-the-post systems, because voters don’t want to waste their ballots and will switch to the major party with the best chance of winning. And yet two major parties simply don’t monopolize all elective offices in nations such as Canada and the U.K. (or in the U.S. in the past, for that matter). Minor parties can build strength regionally, or even by focusing on a scattered group of favorable districts.

The obstacle for the anti-Trump group is less the electoral system and more the lack of any obvious support among voters. And the current group, a collection of who-are-theys and who-were-theys, isn’t likely to have much capacity for building from scratch. But if they were able to somehow persuade a handful of Republican members of Congress — say, those who voted to impeach Trump and those who appear ready to vote to convict him — to break away from the party? Well, then you might have something.

To be worthwhile, such a party would probably start with basic Reaganism in many policy areas, although with any luck it would be innovative enough to update conservative orthodoxy for modern times. In other words, the rebels would vote with Republicans on a lot of things, and could even find themselves leading in some areas. But they’d vote with Democrats on most questions of democracy — restoring and enhancing the Voting Rights Act, making voting easier, supporting D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood, and more. Naturally, they might also push electoral reforms that would help their new party. And they’d generally support civil rights and diversity issues, not just in policy but in manner and style, rejecting the politics of dog whistles for good.

The question isn’t so much whether that mix of policies has popular support but whether enough current politicians are willing to walk and risk their careers. If so, they might still be wiped out in their next re-election bids. But maybe not: Freed from the need to worry about primary elections, they could try to appeal to whatever voters are up for grabs in their states or districts. Perhaps that, and incumbency, could be enough. 

At any rate, a bunch of campaign and governing professionals with the support of some fairly obscure retired politicians is highly unlikely to have any real effect. But that same group, plus a handful of U.S. senators and five to 10 members of the House? That’s a movement that could certainly make some noise, and perhaps a lot of noise. I still don’t think it’s likely. But then again a fair number of unusual things have happened to the nation in the last few years, many of them centered on the radicalism of the current Republican Party.

1. Martha Crenshaw on what comes after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

2. Molly Reynolds on improving Congress as a workplace.

3. Andrew Kerner, Ha Eun Choi and Cristina Bodea at the Monkey Cage on Janet Yellen and women in top economic positions.

4. Florian Gawehns at Mischiefs of Faction on the House Freedom Caucus and Republicans in state governments.

5. James Wallner makes the case against post-presidential conviction in the Senate. I continue to think it’s kosher, but it’s not an open-and-shut case (unlike Trump’s First Amendment claims, which I think are both frivolous and pernicious).

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman on the what Trump’s lawyers conceded.

7. And Thomas Edsall on QAnon and the future of U.S. democracy.

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