For Republicans in the Trump Era, Chaos Often Seems to Be the Point
"A revolt in Congress. Insurgent candidacies in swing states. A likely nominee on trial. This week showed how the party has turned more insular, antagonistic and repellent to general-election voters.
Turbulence has trailed the Republican Party ever since Donald J. Trump’s rise. This week, that chaos looked like an organizing principle.
Internal discord rippled through the party’s ranks in battleground states and the nation’s capital, showing clearly how a Trumpian algorithm has incentivized Republicans to keep their electorally self-destructive patterns in place.
In Congress, conservative lawmakers ended the speakership of Representative Kevin McCarthy in an unprecedented power struggle that served as a gift to gleeful Democrats eager to tell 2024 voters about the failures of Republican governance.
And in downtown Manhattan, the prohibitive favorite for the party’s presidential nomination, Donald J. Trump, sat in a courtroom — his lips pursed and eyebrows knit — at his civil fraud trial, the latest in a long line of legal setbacks that will tie him up in court throughout the campaign season. Even after a judge imposed a gag order on him for attacking a court clerk on social media, Mr. Trump lashed out online at the prosecutor and declared the trial a “witch hunt.”
Taken together, the events this week showed how disorder has created its own reward system among Republicans, turning the party increasingly insular and antagonistic — and, as a result, more repellent to general-election voters. After three consecutive disappointing election cycles for the party, it shows few signs of getting itself back on track.
Long gone are the carrots and sticks that traditionally helped party leaders shepherd their flocks, like fund-raising help from national committees or plum committee assignments.
Instead, the way to rise as a Republican is, one, to display unbending devotion to Mr. Trump and then, two, to embrace some mix of relentless self-promotion, militant opposition to Democrats and a willingness to burn the federal government to the ground — even if it means taking the party down, too.
“This all goes back to our reward structure, and how that’s gotten turned on its head,” said Doug Heye, a former aide to Representative Eric Cantor, the onetime majority leader ousted in 2014 by a far-right challenger, pointing out that some of the most controversial Republicans in Congress have bigger social media followings than the party’s leaders.
“As long as you’re talking about fighting — regardless of whether you have a strategy to land a punch or win a round — you never actually have to win, because that’s what gets the most attention,” Mr. Heye continued. “And that means Republicans are now sort of always talking between ourselves, and the rest of the country we either don’t engage or hold in contempt.”
What’s new is how ingrained such instincts have become among Republicans. Impractical purity tests are creating new divisions in an already fragmented party, like an uncontrollable mitosis damaging nearby tissue with potentially fatal consequences.
That means the challenge for one of the nation’s two major political parties is whether it can find a way to thrive when it is powered by a strain of conservatism that somehow grows more potent in defeat.
This quandary was articulated by Representative Matt Rosendale of Montana, a far-right Republican weighing a Senate bid against Jon Tester, the Democratic incumbent. Mr. Rosendale recently told donors that while his party had anticipated a wave of victories in last year’s midterm elections, he had been “praying each evening for a small majority.”
“Because I recognize that that small majority was the only way that we were going to advance a conservative agenda, and that if it was the right majority, that if we had six or seven very strong individuals, we would drag the conference over to the right — and we were able to do that,” Mr. Rosendale said in a video of the meetingposted by The Messenger.
Mr. McCarthy’s ouster on Tuesday was carried out by just eight Republican members of the chamber, including Mr. Rosendale and Representative Matt Gaetz, a Floridian who sat next to Mr. Rosendale during the donor event.
Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump White House strategist who interviewed the two congressmen during the fund-raiser, said, “Matt Gaetz gave me that lecture in July of 2022 about the smaller majority — and you are correct, sir.”
While Mr. Bannon, now a podcast host, helped orchestrate Mr. McCarthy’s downfall, other conservative media personalities — including Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro — blasted the move.
But this antagonistic partisanship has proved successful only for the most provocative members of the party who represent the most gerrymandered districts, which leave them accountable only to primary voters. Republicans following this playbook in battleground states or more competitive districts have shouldered the blame for the party’s underperformance in recent years.
So far, many Republicans seem uninterested in mitigating their electoral misery.
Far from viewing the gag order as an embarrassment, the Trump campaign sensed an opportunity. It blasted the news to supporters in an email that aimed to launder grievances into cash for his presidential bid.
In many ways, the courtroom is the new campaign trail for Mr. Trump, who wasn’t required to appear at the trial but opted to do so anyway — and has repeatedly addressed the news media at the courthouse.
Even after dozens of criminal charges piled up against him this summer, Mr. Trump has widened his lead in the presidential primary race by portraying himself as the victim of political persecution, and vowing revenge on his perceived enemies if voters return him to the White House.
The tactics have rallied his base of supporters, and there is nothing to suggest Mr. Trump will shift that strategy as his trial dates collide with some of the most important milestones on the Republican primary calendar.
The party’s first nominating contest is in Iowa on Jan. 15, the same day Mr. Trump’s civil trial is scheduled to begin into whether he owes the writer E. Jean Carroll damages for defaming her after she accused him of raping her.
On March 4, Mr. Trump is set to stand trial over federal criminal charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. The next day, Republicans hold their “Super Tuesday” primaries.
Two more trials will unfold during the primary season — one later in March over 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, stemming from a hush money paymentmade to a porn star in 2016, and another in May over charges of illegally retaining dozens of classified documents.
Then, in July, Republicans hold their presidential nominating convention.
But if Mr. Trump and other Republicans come up short on the first Tuesday in November 2024, the events that unfolded during the first week of October 2023 may begin to explain those failures."