Two weeks ago, I had a chat on WVIK with David Millage, former Iowa state representative and chair of the Scott County Republican Party. He had recently resigned his chairmanship in the wake of criticism after calling for President Trump’s impeachment.
The criticism was sharp and personal; even coming from friends he had made in a lifetime of service to the G.O.P. He was not alone. Those in Congress who voted for Trump’s impeachment or conviction have also been roundly rebuked or subject to formal party censure.
A comment from David Bell, a county official in Pennsylvania who castigated Sen. Pat Toomey for voting for impeachment, was telling: "We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing or whatever he said he was doing. We sent him there to represent us."
That "us" is to be found, not only in the various groups that make up Trump’s base, but also in the formal structure of the party, from city and county level to state and national. How did the Grand Old Party become the Trump Party? The transition from G.O.P. to T.P. has flummoxed old-line Republican stalwarts who now question their future association.
Polls measuring approval of the former president remain high in spite of his scandalous incitement to insurrection. It is hard to imagine a more impeachable crime. Even after voting for acquittal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was scathing in denouncing Trump for his actions, but the response to his and others' condemnations has made barely a ripple in the ratings.
There is still a sizable number of voters who continue to believe in the Big Lie about the election being stolen. No one familiar with the process can possibly buy into such a fable. At every step of the process, in every precinct, representatives of both parties were close observers and, apart from a few minor glitches, nothing illegal or fraudulent has been found.
Trump's reaction is understandable. He cannot stand being a "loser." He has suffered many losses in his career, but has always found a way to interpret them as wins. This one was too public and verifiable to explain away, so he simply lied, over and over again. His ego is too fragile for him to be seen as anything other than a "killer," his father’s term for someone who always prevails.
But how to explain why most of the 74 million who voted for him accepted such a fantasy as fact? Why is their adherence to him almost religious in its fervor? Will the Republican Party be able to recover its standing as the sober, conservative anchor of our democracy or will it reshape itself as the voice of white autocratic nationalism?
In our conversation, Millage reminded me of many Illinois Republican senators I served with from 1972 to 1980: solid, responsible and reasonable. I differed with them from time to time, but was able to vote with them in committee and in session when we agreed, and had support for some of my bills from some of the most conservative.
But the contemporary Republican Party has been changed from top to bottom. It has left some of its most prominent and effective members alarmed and isolated. Is this what they signed on for?
You have only to look at Iowa to gauge the contrast. It is one of 17 states wholly under Republican control, something that was achieved as part of Charles Koch’s drive to reshape government. Furious at having to pay huge fines for pollution, he set out to move the country back to the kind of autocracy we experienced over a century ago, enlisting his wealthy friends to finance amenable candidates at every level of government. Iowa is one of his most recent acquisitions.
Koch was no fan of Trump, but accepted him as someone who would give the wealthy a tax break and subvert government, especially the pesky Environmental Protection Agency which had cost him so much money. At the same time, evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, nervous about protecting their IRS charitable tax exemptions, stirred their followers to become politically active and quickly made common cause with Koch’s allies.
Add to these unusual bedfellows, the Tea Party (another beneficiary of Koch’s largesse) and the various domestic terrorist groups that multiplied during the Obama presidency, and you have the core of a very different Republican Party. Traditional Republicans voted with them; it remains to be seen what they will do in the future.
It will also be interesting to see what happens in Iowa. The Legislature, like Koch, accepted candidate Trump, but has gone beyond its sponsor in devotion, dedicated to limiting voting, restricting abortion, aiding private schools, and refusing to wear face masks. Gov. Kim Reynolds, mimicking Trumpian behavior, has been hesitant and erratic is dealing with the pandemic, earning such snarky titles as "Covid Kim" and "the Kim Reaper."
"Country Club" Republican rule has yielded to discontented and angry populists in Rock Island and "Iowa nice" Scott County. How long will it take them to realize that the T.P. may serve their anger and fears, but not their needs?
Don Wooten is a former Illinois state senator and a regular columnist. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.