The Republican rebellion failed: Donald Trump won.
“I was disappointed over the last few weeks to see what seemed like the Republican party waking up,” the Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger observed on NBC’s Meet the Press last week, “and then kind of falling asleep again”.
Kinzinger is among a band of Republican dissidents who openly defy the former US president’s continued dominance of the party. They are small, bullied and vastly outnumbered. But in a finely balanced Congress where anti-Trump sentiment is wider than it first appears, they are likely to play an outsized role in the future of American politics.
The known “Never Trump” resistance consists of 10 members of the House of Representatives who last month voted to impeach him for inciting an insurrection at the US Capitol. They include Liz Cheney, the most senior woman in the Republican caucus, who declared “there has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the constitution”.
Then there are five senators who rejected spurious process arguments and voted to press ahead with the impeachment trial: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. The group will soon shrink because Toomey has announced that he will not seek re-election next year.
But it is an open secret in Washington that they have many fellow travelers: Republican traditionalists who privately despise Trump, and may well convict him if only the vote could be held by secret ballot, but dare not speak out for fear of retribution from rightwing media and increasingly radicalized state parties. This can take the form of primary election challenges, heckling in public places and even death threats.
Charlie Sykes, editor-at-large of the Bulwark website and author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, said: “I would hate to see what the mailbox of someone like a Mitt Romney is. We’ll see more scenes of folks harassing the moderates at airports but, within the leadership ranks, they understand what the stakes are. I’m guessing that rather a large number of senators share Romney’s view and are probably telling him that they wish they could say the same thing.”
This well of tacit sympathy is one reason why Romney and other senators are unlikely to face personal hostility from colleagues. Another is that, with the Senate evenly split at 50-50 – the Democratic vice-president, Kamala Harris, holds the tie-breaking vote – Republicans cannot afford to ostracize or alienate any members.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, explained: “Neither party can afford to shun a single member of their caucus in the Senate because to overcome a filibuster you need 51 votes – a legislative filibuster is 60 – so every party needs every senator.
“That’s why the Senate is, at least for now, a safer place to be a maverick than the House of Representatives, although now with the margin in the House, you need every vote on each side as well.”
The Republican caucus in the House is more overtly Trumpian, as evidenced by the newcomer Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused racist and antisemitic views and expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory. That indicates why Cheney – the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney – has faced a more severe backlash from Trump loyalists than any senator.
Although she survived an attempt this week to oust her as the party’s No 3 in the House as punishment for endorsing impeachment, an Axios-SurveyMonkey poll found that Cheney is far less popular than Greene among Republicans and those who lean Republican.
She could still face censure from the Wyoming state party and a primary challenge. The Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, a fervent Trump backer from Florida, even flew to Wyoming to urge supporters to vote her out. “Washington DC mythologises the establishment power brokers like Liz Cheney for climbing in a deeply corrupt game,” Gaetz told a rally of about a thousand people in Cheyenne. “But there are more of us than there are of them.”
Sykes observed: “When you have somebody like Matt Gaetz flying to Wyoming, he’s doing that because he thinks that that strengthens his brand in the GOP [Grand Old Party] to attack other Republicans, which tells you about the toxic nature of this civil war.”
It is debatable whether, as Kinzinger posited, the Republican party really was close to waking up from its Trumpian fever dream. Although the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, both stated that Trump bears responsibility for the deadly violence at the US Capitol, McConnell then voted against holding an impeachment trial and McCarthy visited the ex-president at his Florida redoubt to mend fences.
Taking McConnell’s cue, a further 44 Republican senators supported a resolution declaring the trial unconstitutional because Trump is now a private citizen. It meant that his eventual acquittal is all but certain, just as it was at his first impeachment trial a year ago when Romney was the sole senator to break from the party line.
Such is the Trump base’s hold on the party that while some establishment Republicans stay and fight, others often retire and walk away. In recent years they have included Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, senators from Tennessee and Arizona respectively, soon to be joined by Rob Portman, an Ohio senator who recently announced he would not run for election again. Justin Amash, a Trump critic in the House, left the Republican party in 2019.
But the current crop of Never Trumpers in the Senate are likely to keep speaking out because of a mix of pragmatism and principle. In November Collins and Sasse won the cushion of six-year terms; Murkowski comes from a state that uses ranked-choice voting, meaning that she could leave the Republican party and still have a strong chance of re-election next year; Romney is wealthy and has already had a shot at the presidency so has little to lose.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who ran a Senate campaign against Romney in Massachusetts in 1994, said: “He’s a conservative: that’s clear from how he votes on issues, from how he’s reacted to the Covid-19 relief. But in terms of the norms and standards of democracy, he’s going to do what he believes and, if it turns out that it hurts him in Utah, I don’t think he cares.”
Similarly unapologetic, Kinzinger has announced a new political action committee called Country First, urging Republicans to cast off their mantle as the “Trump-first party” and “unplug the outrage machine”. In his Meet the Press interview, the congressman warned that the party had peddled “darkness and division” and “lost its moral authority in a lot of areas”.
Though they often seem like voices in the wilderness, the rebels can point to reports that thousands of people have quit the Republican party since the US Capitol riot on 6 January. They also have the support of former party officials and outside groups that worked for Trump’s defeat last year and continue to oppose him.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney have been the standard bearers and we need to reinforce their leadership as much as possible.
“It’s not about establishment Republicanism versus pitchfork Republicanism – that’s just a false flag argument. The Republican party either is or isn’t something. Either Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney stand for what that something is or they don’t. Either Marjorie Taylor Green and Jim Jordan [a pro-Trump congressman] stand for what that is or they don’t. And that’s the battle.”
Steele, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, added: “I happen to think that Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney represent the opportunity for a governing majority in the future. I think Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene and all that Trumpist bullshit isn’t the future of the party. I stand with Adam Kinzinger. Let’s have that fight.”