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Modern Republicans’ Ongoing Hatred for Their Former Selves
Disdain for the GOP of yesteryear continues to drive the party.
A few days ago, an old photo of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went viral on the internet. The image, taken from a Harvard yearbook, shows DeSantis, a young law student at the time, proudly holding up a "Romney for Governor'' sign during the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign.
There should have been nothing surprising, let alone controversial about the photo. DeSantis was a member of Harvard’s "Law Republicans" group, and Mitt Romney was the state’s Republican nominee for governor (he would go on to win general election). But ABC News, who drew new attention the photo, believed the image illustrated some irony, or perhaps even hypocrisy in regard to some recent rhetorical pot-shots DeSantis, now a GOP presidential hopeful, took at Romney.
DeSantis said that Romney was a member of the "surrender caucus of Republicans" and that he "never fought for us in the beginning."
These are standard MAGA talking-points, of course, the base-pleasing variety of which are often aimed at Romney and other Republicans who’ve had the gall to get on Donald Trump’s bad side. But ABC saw an opportunity to stir the point, and they took it.
Of course, ABC making this a national story in the first place was silly, and MAGA-world piggybacking off it was predictably stupid and, as usual, void of introspection.
I mean, if any past association with Mitt Romney is supposed to be a mark of shame, Trumpies might want to recall how their guy very publicly endorsed Romney for high-office… twice. The first time was during Romney’s presidential run in 2012, a decade after a young Ron DeSantis held up that sign. In fact, Trump was so defensive of Romney back then that after he lost, Trump — in a preview of things to come — declared that the election had quite literally been stolen from Romney.
I’m not joking.
“This election is a total sham and a travesty,” Trump insisted on election night of 2012. “We are not a democracy!” Trump even called on Americans to “march on Washington” and “fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice!”
It’s amazing and quite depressing that such dopey, telegraphed nonsense found millions of true believers eight years later, but that’s a column for another time. My point with this sidebar discussion is that while DeSantis may have once had a spark for Romney, Trump had a full-blown inferno for the man.
But again, none of this should matter… because it’s all very stupid — the political equivalent of pointing and shouting that someone has cooties.
Yet, it’s exactly the brand of juvenile nonsense that resonates with much of today’s Republican base… which is why DeSantis, who’s still failing in his exhaustive efforts to peel away MAGA voters, took those obligatory shots at Romney in the first place. It’s a big part of why Trump continues to dominate GOP presidential-primary polls three years after being defeated by Joe Biden, and three election cycles into a devastating MAGA-led losing streak for Republicans. It’s also clear in the utter disdain Trump loyalists have for the GOP itself, including people like Kevin McCarthy, who’ve disgraced themselves in every way imaginable to prove their slobbering servitude to Donald Trump.
It’s quite amazing when you think about it. Even handing Trump what pretty much everyone agrees were his greatest achievements as president, like Paul Ryan did with tax-reform legislation, and Mitch McConnell did with the judiciary, won’t earn you an ounce of regard from the Trump-loving modern right. Ryan and McConnell remain despised by Republican voters nearly as much as Romney and Liz Cheney are, and it’s hard to think of any GOP leader, who came to political prominence prior to the Trump era, that most Republican voters today would so much as piss on if they were on fire.
Many of these leaders have already been purged by the base, and in some cases their Republican colleagues, but they’ll all remain party pariahs, even beyond the time when they’ll eventually leave office.
An online acquaintance of mine had it absolutely right the other day when he posted this:
I became a Republican in 2000, and volunteered quite a bit for the GOP back before the Upside Down. I saw firsthand how there was always a segment of base voters who didn’t care for (and in some cases despised) certain Republican politicians. But after 2016, a switch was flipped and most of the base, at the behest of Donald Trump, decided that traditional Republican politicians (or even just pre-existing ones) were more worthy of their scorn than their Democratic counterparts.
The hostility weirdly comes from a sense of betrayal, despite it being the Republican base — not traditional Republican politicians — that changed. Granted, a whole lot of these politicians have rather shamelessly tried to change since 2016, sacrificing their principles, integrity, and dignity in hopes of appeasing the new base. But again — as has been the case with Kevin McCarthy — it’s never enough. No amount of pandering or self-degradation can bridge the gap.
Like it or not, pre-Trump Republican politicians will forever be identified with the “old brigade.” They’re relics of a throwback era in which the GOP had an actual platform — one based on conservative principles. Today’s base doesn’t care a whole lot about policies, let alone conservative policies. They like conflict, over-the-top personalities, and angry expressions of victimization and grievance. They demand performative outrage, not political victories.
The situation is frustrating even for some Republican leaders who’ve more than dabbled in populist MAGA-theatrics.
“One thing. I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing. One. That I can go campaign on and say we did,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) shouted in a House floor speech last Wednesday. “Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, ‘Well, I guess it's not as bad as the Democrats’.”
To me, he made a good point (though I’d argue that Roy has very much been part of the problem). After all, the most notable thing House Republicans have done since capturing their current razor-thin majority was ousting Speaker Kevin McCarthy, spending the next embarrassing few weeks struggling to fill his seat (while a major international conflict erupted overseas), and finally settling on a guy who quickly worked the same kind of deal with Democrats that McCarthy was being trashed over.
Where Roy got it wrong is that the soap-opera story I just described is exactly the kind of stunt many of today’s Republican voters revel in, and even demand. They’re not terribly concerned with legislation getting passed, but they do thoroughly enjoy seeing GOP stuffed shirts (aka pre-Trump Republicans) getting thumbs shoved in their eyes. That’s why clowns in deep-red districts like Matt Gaetz feel so comfortable doing it. They know they won’t be punished by their voters.
Voters in not-so-red districts are a different matter. A big reason why the GOP majority in the House is so thin in the first place, instead of Republicans right now enjoying the benefits of that widely predicated “red wave” in the midterms, is that too many Trump-endorsed MAGA Republicans won their primaries but lost in the general election.
The old Republican base thought winning elections was important. Most Republican voters understood the candidate-quality mattered. The new base, by and large, would rather lose a general election to a Democrat than win with a pre-Trump Republican. To lots of these voters, there’s even a certain purity and nobility in losing with a modern, post-2016 Republican candidate. It means that candidate didn’t cave to the rules of “the establishment” or “the deep state” in what was probably a “rigged” election anyway. Losing weirdly keeps such failed politicians in good standing with a tribe that likewise views itself as victims of the powers that be.
Just look at Kari Lake, who has perhaps learned this lesson better than anyone from her party’s leader.
I sadly don’t see things changing anytime soon. As I’ve pointed out for the better part of a year, Republicans have an amazing opportunity right now to nominate a party leader of substance — a proven leader with a deep understanding of important issues, who presents serious ideas for dealing with significant American challenges. Yet, 60% of GOP voters are rallying around a twice-impeached, criminally-indicted, anti-democratic, electorally toxic demagogue who has no real campaign platform beyond a lot of loud whining, and autocratic revenge fantasies about punishing people who’ve been mean to him.
Until the party stops hating itself and its past more than it wants to stop Democratic governance and progressive legislation, this Republican, entertainment-driven culture of losing will continue.