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Analysis: Extremists seize back control of the Republican Party's message machine

A week ago, Glenn Youngkin showed his party a new way to win. His triumph in the Virginia governor’s race sparked talk of a new GOP surge in the suburbs, of tiptoeing past Donald Trump and of letting 2020 election conspiracies go.
But now the party is showing its uglier, and arguably more authentic, face, even as ex-President Trump suffers a rebuke from a court that rejected his bid to keep hundreds of documents related to the US Capitol insurrection secret.
Violence is now everywhere in our political debates Violence is now everywhere in our political debates
An Arizona congressman tweeted a photoshopped anime video of himself slaying liberal Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Sen. Ted Cruz , a Texas Republican, has reportedly been spitballing about secession. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton shared a vile voicemail branding him a traitor and threatening his family after he was one of the handful of Republicans to vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill to create jobs mending roads, bridges and airports. And the ex-President himself has taken his incitement and obsessional lies about an election in which he tried to destroy US democracy to new levels of intensity. He has already notified the court that he is appealing the judge’s ruling Tuesday night that the current President’s decision not to assert privilege over the documents outweighs Trump’s position that they should not be handed over.
For all the signs of a newly focused GOP ready to exploit President Joe Biden’s struggles against inflation and high gas prices and to court parents dismayed over pandemic school closures, its unhinged wing is again stealing the spotlight.
The GOP is again coming across as a party that glorifies violence, denies truth, defies constitutional order, excuses insurrection, fuels conspiracy theories, appeases extremists and trashes democracy in its zeal to grab back power.
A week after Youngkin won because he had listened to voter concerns that Democrats failed to hear, the GOP extreme entertainment machine, which seems to exist to drive outrage-fueling content for right-wing media, is humming again.
Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, one of Trump’s most vehement defenders, is at the center of the latest insult to decency, after his social media post about Ocasio-Cortez, which also showed his cartoon figure slashing at a representation of Biden.
“It’s a cartoon. Relax,” Gosar wrote in a graphic on a follow-up tweet. In a later statement, Gosar denied that he had meant “violence or harm” toward any member of Congress or Biden, claiming the animation was meant to portray a fight over immigration and that the monsters it depicted with the faces of the President and Ocasio-Cortez were supposed to portray “the policy monster of open borders.” “It is a symbolic cartoon. It is not real life,” Gosar said. His statement, however, noticeably referred repeatedly to “Mr. Biden” and did not use his rightful title of “President.”
As usual, critics of stunning GOP incivility are being accused of lacking a sense of humor or being overly literal. But given America’s blood-spattered history of political assassinations and attacks on members of Congress, Gosar’s threat against a fellow lawmaker is hardly a joke. And quips about violence are a lot less funny in a nation traumatized by the attack by a pro-Trump mob on Congress that resulted in four deaths, saw scores of police officers beaten and sent lawmakers running for their lives. Gosar has said that crowd of criminals was full of “peaceful patriots” and like many of his House GOP colleagues, has tried to wipe the history of the worst affront against US political values in generations.

A firing offense?

As many observers pointed out, Gosar’s behavior would likely be a firing offensive in many jobs. Yet it did not cause House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who after next year could be called upon to uphold the highest moral and ethical standards of Congress as speaker, to break his silence. The California Republican has a long record of tolerance for extremism among allies of Trump, whose base he hopes to ride to power in midterm elections next year. Indeed, he was the first top party leader to embrace Trump after the insurrection when political expediency forced him to repudiate his initial criticism of his friend’s incitement of violence.
Some old-school Republicans are dismayed about what has become of their party. “I think it’s incumbent on Republican leadership, particularly Kevin McCarthy, to set standards of conduct and to enforce them,” former GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on Tuesday.
Republicans who voted for Biden's infrastructure bill come under fire from Trump Republicans who voted for Biden's infrastructure bill come under fire from Trump
The bile heaped on 13 GOP members who backed a bipartisan infrastructure bill revealed another example of the zealotry pulsating through the conservative populist movement. Upton revealed on CNN a voice mail calling him a “f**king piece of sh*t traitor” after Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a leading light of the GOP’s stunt and conspiracy caucuses, tweeted the phone numbers of Republican colleagues who voted for the bill and called them traitors. Greene, who has carved a reputation for insults, tantrums and spectacles since coming to Congress earlier this year, is becoming a metaphor for the modern GOP — one barely recognizable as ex-President Ronald Reagan’s party, which once prided itself on making the world safe for democracy after winning the Cold War.
The latest eruption from extreme GOP rabble-rousers came after leading Republicans had spent the last few days arguing that Youngkin’s success and Biden’s troubles pointed to a new path for the party. Nearly a year after Trump left office, the party had hopes of reconnecting with suburban voters alienated by the ex-President.
“We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections — no matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over,” ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told influential fundraisers over the weekend. Christie was referring to Trump’s lies claiming the last election was stolen, which tens of millions of the ex-President’s supporters now believe.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has tolerated Trump for years in the cause of bolstering his own power but nevertheless wants to move forward, also tried to haul his party out of the Trumpian abyss this week.
“I think the election will be about the future, not about the past,” the Kentucky Republican said, saying the key to the 2022 midterm elections was focusing Americans on the Biden administration’s policies. Given underlying historic and political factors, next year’s elections are likely to be favorable for Republicans.
Chris Christie delivers tough message to Republican audience, saying GOP gains hinge on moving on from 2020Chris Christie delivers tough message to Republican audience, saying GOP gains hinge on moving on from 2020
But events of the last few days show the core weakness of the Christie/McConnell approach. The incidents also exposed the naivete of the idea that the Youngkin blueprint, which relied on sending coded signals to Trump supporters but avoiding the ex-President himself, could work everywhere for Republicans in 2022, especially with Trump handpicking some problematic candidates in key primaries. After five years in Trump’s thrall, and after he repeatedly lowered the standards of public discourse, GOP leaders have no capacity to control their own supporters and are unable to demand civility from their elected members. Their path to power also runs through the very Trump supporters to whom radicals like Greene and Gosar are trying to appeal. In a recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, 30% of Republicans said they believed violence might be necessary to “save the United States” — proof of the power of Trump’s insurrectionist and racially suggestive message that the country has been stolen from real, patriotic Americans.
Faced with such realities, Youngkin-style tightrope walking is almost impossible to pull off on a national stage. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who is running the GOP’s bid to take back the Senate next year, for instance, repeatedly refused in an interview with CNN’s Brianna Keilar this week to condemn Trump’s recent claims that future US elections will be corrupt unless his 2020 loss is overturned.

Drowning out the midterm message

Leaders like Scott would much prefer to talk about serious economic problems that are haunting the Democratic White House and the GOP’s new opening on education. But Trump’s repeated inflammatory attacks on the electoral system and the determination of his extremist acolytes are showing no sign of abating. The ex-President sent out a flurry of statements just on Tuesday, claiming the real insurrection had taken place on Election Day last year, not on January 6. His latest blasts came as some of his aides refuse subpoenas issued by the House select committee investigating the attack. Their obstructionism raises questions about Congress’ constitutional role in assuring checks and balances on executive power for decades to come. And it deepens concerns that if he wins back the White House in a possible 2024 campaign, the ex-President will finish the job of obliterating democracy.
As he plays a far more visible role in the midterms than he has during an already active first year out of office, it will become even harder for Republicans to replicate Youngkin’s model of deliberately forgetting to mention him.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the few House Republicans to tell the truth about Trump’s coup attempt on January 6, bemoaned the state of her party on Tuesday.
She warned that the US was confronting a threat it had never faced before — “a former President who’s attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic, aided by political leaders who have made themselves willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man,” Cheney said.
In a speech in New Hampshire, the Wyoming lawmaker, who is facing a primary challenge from pro-Trump forces, lambasted “political leaders who sit silent in the face of these false and dangerous claims.”
But Cheney is an outlier, certainly in the House GOP, which booted her from its leadership earlier this year. And there was a new sign on Tuesday that the uproar and bitter divides in Washington may be depriving the party of some of its top talent. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, one of his party’s most coveted recruitment targets to run for the Senate, announced he would stay in the Granite State and run for reelection.
“I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down, end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results. That’s why I am going to run for a fourth term,” Sununu said.
The state of the GOP in Washington is in many ways a national tragedy. It deprives conservatives of a voice untainted by violence and demagoguery. But more importantly, governance itself is weakened when one of the country’s two great parties is consumed by extremist dogma and rage. And ultimately, it threatens the very existence of American democracy, which is under siege on multiple fronts from a radicalized party that has lost control of itself.
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