The US Republicans are threatened with a split: While Trump supporters secure his influence, his opponents are threatening to found a third party. What’s behind the risky strategy?
The wildest insults against Donald Trump are not necessarily heard in the USA at the moment at left-wing liberal demonstrations. Rather, the anger towards the ex-president and his supporters seems to be greatest among frustrated Republicans. “He’s not just stupid, he’s bad and vicious and corrupt and cruel, he’s just a terrible person.” These are the words the politician Chris Vance used a few days ago in a podcast.
Vance is one of the 150 Conservatives who recently openly threatened to break the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans – and found a third party. Since then, he and his colleagues have been promoting their idea in interviews and guest posts. Vance was once the Republican party leader in northwest Washington state. He also ran for the US Senate in 2016, albeit unsuccessfully.
He is now one of those conservatives who have turned away from their own party because of Trump and his supporters. They reject the personality cult around him, fear the increasingly right-wing extremist, ideological conspiracy and anti-democratic forces.
Their problem: they would not be happy with the Democrats either. People like Vance – decent conservatives – have been politically homeless since the Trump years.
But now they want to do something about their own frustration. Albeit in different ways: while some Republicans are talking about a real secession, others prefer to fight in the party. And many are still betting that Trump might disappear. They all take a risky path that could actually break the party in the end.
Call of 150 Conservatives
As early as February, Chris Vance had publicly discussed with many others about founding a third party. In mid-May the time had come: 150 well-known former and current Republicans signed and published a manifesto entitled: “A Call for American Renewal”. These included, for example, the short-term and then Trump-fired communications director of the White House, Anthony Scaramucci, der Trump-Rivale Evan McMullin or the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, the African American Michael Steele.
With their appeal, the signatories initially only want to urge the Grand Old Party (GOP) to comply with their “founding ideals” again, including “democracy”, “truth”, “rule of law” and “diversity”. But then they openly issue a threat: Should one fail with this goal, one would quickly set about founding “an alternative”. It almost seems as if these constitutional conservatives are trying to set up their own moderate tea party movement to beat Trump and his supporters at their own guns.
Miles Taylor, who is also involved in the action and who had once served as a security expert in the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, even spoke in a CNN interview of a “civil war within the GOP” that is not going to end but just beginning.
The next level of escalation
The internal party conflicts among the Republicans threaten to escalate. Because the camps are moving further and further away from each other. On the one hand, Trump’s supporters in states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas are working to tighten the electoral laws in their favor. The idea behind it: the fewer people vote, the worse it is for the Democrats.
At the same time, the ex-president is successfully trying to put him in position for the coming congressional elections against moderate Republicans and is collecting a remarkable number of donations.
On the other hand, frustrated homeless Republicans like Chris Vance or Congressmen like Liz Cheny are rehearsing the uprising. It is true that they cannot pose a direct threat to Donald Trump. He now controls the party too much. But not quite. It is not without reason that his supporters abuse “the traitors” because they would endanger the unity of the Republican Party.
It is true that their numbers and their power appear small compared to the camp of the Trump loyalists. But Trump and his supporters know that forming a third party would de facto mean the end of Republicans. The consequences for the US political system would be immense.
So what’s behind the moderate Republicans’ risky strategy, and how realistic is that scenario?
The desire for a third party
In fact, more Republican supporters seem to want a third party than ever before: In February, the Gallup polling institute noted a jump in this regard from 40 to 63 percent.
Political scientist Lee Drutman sees this as further evidence that the US needs major electoral reform. Because only then would such a party be successful. Drutman has long been fighting for the US to have proportional representation instead of majority voting, as is the case in Germany, for example.
In his book “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America” he describes the goal of a political system with significantly more than just two parties, in which coalitions would then have to be found. At the moment, it seems anything but likely that such a nationwide reform could take place.
From the results of the Gallup survey, it is also not clear what political orientation such a third party should have. Around 44 percent of the Republican supporters surveyed would like a more conservative party than the current one. 35 percent think such a party should be oriented like the current Republicans.
But at least 21 percent long for a more moderate Republican Party. Gallup also found that 68 percent want Trump to lead their party. On the other hand, 31 percent want a different leader. The potential of the anti-Trump Republicans should therefore be a maximum of a third.
Bluff as leverage
But the moderates want above all to use the potential of the allegedly lost votes as a means of pressure against the Trump loyalists. After a split, the Republicans would have no chance in the presidential election for an indefinite period of time. So are they really going to put their plan into practice?
Christian Lammert from the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University of Berlin believes that the threat from the anti-Trumpists is much more than just political banter. “Something like that has to be taken very seriously. The option of letting the party break up is extremely risky and almost political suicide,” the professor of political systems in North America tells t-online. The Republicans are thus forced to fight the directional battle with all the consequences.
The second risky way
Many opponents of Trump are not joining the idea of founding a third party to vote for their possible presidential candidate in 2024. For example, Liz Cheney, the daughter of the ultra-conservative former Vice President Dick Cheney, does not want to give up her party in this way. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said that she was committed to the Republican Party and its conservative values and was ready to fight for them.
Open fight against Donald Trump: Liz Cheney (Source: Getty Images)
Cheney had recently lost an important fight against Trump. After she had openly opposed him several times, she was unceremoniously voted out as the third party leader of the Republicans in Congress and replaced by a successor loyal to Trump. Cheney repeatedly criticized a “dangerous and anti-democratic personality cult around Trump” and said that she would not stand by in silence when her party “joins the former president’s crusade” to “undermine our democracy”.
Anyone who wants to run against Trump as a presidential candidate for the Republicans, said Cheney, must sharply reject his lie about the stolen 2020 election, as well as violence, anti-Semitism and the racist “white supremacy” ideology. The Republicans would have to become the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan again. However, this is also how the proponents of a third party put it.
But Liz Cheney is now choosing the difficult path of getting re-elected to the House of Representatives in her state of Wyoming in the upcoming congressional elections in 2022. It is considered likely that Trump, as in many other cases, will position internal party competitors against Cheney in order to prevent them from doing so. Should Cheney prevail against the Trump loyalists in his own ranks, that would also be a signal for any presidential candidates that it is possible to oppose Trump and still win.
Third way: appeasement
Liz Cheney’s political fate, however, is a warning to many more moderate Republicans. “The uncertainty in the party has long been huge,” says Lammert. Hardly anyone dares to act openly against Trump. “That is why we always see only tentative attempts to distance ourselves, which are then immediately withdrawn.”
The most recent example was the Republican minority leader in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell. Shortly after the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, he criticized Trump for being responsible for the uprising and was described by the ex-president as a “complete failure” and “stupid son of a bitch”. Last week, McConnell brought the Senators in line: The Republicans voted to prevent the establishment of a committee of inquiry into the storming of the Capitol.
Being superficial to Trump to keep influence in the background is a motive for many Republicans. “Many are currently deliberately taking cover,” says Lammert. Those who are re-elected retain influence. Many moderate Republicans simply retired after Trump’s election in 2016 because they did not want to support his course. “But if all moderates did that, only Trumpists would be left in the party,” says Lammert. That is also why many believed in Trump. After all, some hope that Trump will end up in jail anyway and that the problem will be resolved. “That too is of course a very risky strategy.”
Because one thing remains, even if Trump really disappears: the ever-increasing split between the previous more moderate party elite and the base that is so powerful in the party’s internal primaries. Trump remains the phenomenon, but he is not the cause of the radicalization of the Republicans. So it is quite possible that the moderate conservatives are waging their last important battle.