When mainstream Republicans explain away the crazy or dangerous things Donald Trump says he will do — such as, most recently, encouraging Russia to attack NATO allies — they generally point to his first term. Trump talked a big game about locking up all the Democrats, injecting bleach, and so on, but he generally failed to follow through on these ideas. So there’s no reason to hesitate in handing him a second chance at the presidency.
What these rationalizations fail to account for is that the first Trump term, the one his Republican partners look back on so proudly, was a failure in Trump’s mind. Trump calls it a success because he calls everything he does a success. But most of his ideas were frustrated, and his term ended in defeat. He has dedicated himself to producing a different result by purging the party of secret heretics and staffing it with loyalists. The character of the Republican Party’s elite cadres is transforming in accordance with this desire.
The most recent iteration is a purge atop the Republican National Committee. Trump is proposing (a proposal almost certain to be obeyed) to remove the committee’s stolid functionary, Ronna McDaniel, and replace her with a combination of his daughter-in-law Lara Trump and former campaign aide Michael Whatley.
It is easy to dismiss this maneuver as merely the latest reshuffling among party apparatchiks. But it is an important signal of the elevated expectation of loyalty Trump is imposing on the party.
What’s notable about McDaniel is that she is not a Trump skeptic. The former Ronna Romney McDaniel is known for her obeisance, having famously removed her middle name as a kind of tribute. McDaniel’s crime is that her endorsement of Trump’s stolen-election lies did not go far enough. She has claimed the 2020 election had “problems” that were “concerning” and it wasn’t “fair” in an interview with CNN’s Chris Wallace:
“I think saying that there were problems with 2020 is very real. I don’t think that’s election denying,” McDaniel told Wallace. “I’m from Wayne County. We had a woman send a note saying I’m being told to backdate ballots. We had to look into that. That’s deeply concerning.”
“When you have friends who are poll-watching and being kicked out, that’s deeply concerning. We have every right to look at that … I think there were lots of problems with 2020. Ultimately, [Joe Biden] won the election, but there were lots of problems with the 2020 election,” she said. “I don’t think he won it fair. I don’t. I’m not going to say that.”
These comments are a signal to Trump loyalists that she shares their concerns. But it falls short of directly stating that Trump absolutely won the election. The New York Times reported that Trump prefers Whatley “for one overwhelming reason, according to people who have discussed him with the former president: He is ‘a stop the steal guy,’ as one of the people described him.” Lara Trump, a former personal trainer and producer for Inside Edition, has likewise demonstrated her complete reliance on her father-in-law and energetically endorsed even his most deranged election-conspiracy theories.
The Republican National Committee, a private body, is hardly in a position to restrain Trump’s criminal or authoritarian orders even if it desired. The purpose of replacing its leaders is to reward loyalists and demonstrate that even the faintest signs of Trump skepticism are career suicide.
One reason Trump has continued to press his disproved claim to have won the 2020 election is to force fellow Republicans to comply. As frustrating as it may be for the party that he continues elevating an issue that hurts him with swing voters, its value as a tool for exposing secret skeptics has proven invaluable.
The party’s trajectory since the insurrection is stark. In the days after January 6, 2021, Trump was deemed totally toxic. Business groups pledged to deny funds to any Republican candidate who refused to accept the election result. But since then, Liz Cheney was purged from her leadership post for continuing to maintain that the insurrection was wrong, then was successfully targeted in a primary. Mike Pence, once the ultimate Republican hyperpartisan, became loathed solely because he refused to help steal the election. The House replaced its Speaker with one of the legal architects of Trump’s coup attempt.
If Trump returns to office, he won’t literally need allies who say he won in 2020. What he will need is for the entire party to understand that the price of disobedience of any of his whims, however deranged or illegal it may be, is political death.
First appeared on nymag.com