Opinion: If there’s one thing Trump is right about, it’s Republicans

The GOP has become anti-intellectual, conspiracy-minded and authoritarian, intemperate and brutish, transgressive and anarchistic. And there’s no end in sight.

A man shares his tattoo of former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 4, 2023. (Mike Osborne/The New York Times)

For the thousandth time, the Republican Party refused an off-ramp that would free itself from Donald Trump. As long as he’s around, it never will.

In this year’s presidential primary campaign, the party had the chance to nominate Nikki Haley, a successful, conservative former two-term governor of South Carolina. Unlike Trump’s, her public career hasn’t been characterized by a lifetime of moral squalor. And many polls show she would be a more formidable candidate against President Biden than Trump. No matter. Trump decimated Ms. Haley, most recently on Super Tuesday. She suspended her campaign the next day. But she never had a chance.

The Republican Party has grown more radical, unhinged and cultlike every year since Trump took control of it. In 2016, there was outrage among Republicans after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. On the tape, in words that shocked the nation, Trump said that when you’re a star, “You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p----. You can do anything.”

In 2023, Trump was found liable for sexual abuse. His “locker room talk” turned out to be more than just talk. Yet no Republican of significance said a critical word about it.

The same was true earlier this year when Trump was found liable for civil fraud. The judge in the case, Arthur F. Engoron, said that the former president’s “complete lack of contrition” bordered on “pathological.” Yet Republicans were united in their outrage, not in response to Trump’s actions but at the judge for the size of the penalty.

Today, many Republicans not only profess to believe that the election was stolen; prominent members of Congress like Rep. Elise Stefanik and Sen. J.D. Vance say they would not have certified the 2020 election results, as Vice President Mike Pence, to his credit, did. Mike Johnson, who played a leading role in trying to overturn the election, is speaker of the House.

Republicans not only excuse the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Trump and his party also now glorify the insurrectionists. At his kickoff campaign rally for 2024, a song called “Justice for All” played, featuring Trump and the J6 Prison Choir, made up of prisoners charged with crimes related to the riot. Republicans are not only convinced that Trump was unfairly impeached and unfairly indicted, they are also completely untroubled by his threats against (and slander of) judges, law clerks and prosecutors, not to mention his attempts to influence and intimidate witnesses.

They are fine with the former president referring to “the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country” and insinuating that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, deserved to be executed for committing treason. They are fine with Trump encouraging Russia to attack our NATO allies and comparing himself with Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s fiercest and bravest critic, who died while serving time in a remote Russian prison for his political beliefs. They are fine with him suggesting “termination” of the Constitution and with one of Trump’s lawyers arguing that if as president, Trump ordered SEAL Team Six to assassinate an opponent, he could be immune from criminal prosecution. And this is only a tiny representation of what he’s been saying and doing for years.

Call them Fifth Avenue Republicans.

Fifth Avenue Republicans support Trump regardless of what he does — even if, as he said in 2016, he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and shot someone. This wasn’t an exaggeration; it was prophecy.

The radicalization of the Republican Party isn’t going to abate anytime soon. Another band of traditional Republicans, who could serve as a counterweight to MAGA Republicans, is fleeing Congress. Republicans who have recently left or who are about to leave include Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse in the Senate and Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Patrick McHenry, Kay Granger, Will Hurd, Ken Buck and Mike Gallagher in the House. Some of these people have said privately that they knew that continuing to serve in Congress as representatives of a party saying good things about Trump that they knew weren’t true was not good for their souls.

Twenty-six Republican senators voted against the recent aid package for Ukraine, which a pre-Trump Republican Party would have overwhelmingly supported. And of the 17 Republican senators who were elected beginning in 2018 and who are age 55 or younger, 15 voted no.

In other words, the MAGA takeover of the Republican Party is complete. Mitch McConnell, one of the most influential majority leaders in the history of the Senate, who excoriated Trump for his role in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 from the floor of the Senate, recently announced he was stepping down from the Republican leadership, and soon after that, he announced he was endorsing Trump. It was a surrender to Trump, an acknowledgment of his dominance.

Trump will be the Republican nominee for the third time. His imprint on the Republican Party is now comparable with — and in some ways exceeds — Ronald Reagan’s. And that imprint is likely to last for at least a generation. It is a staggering achievement.

It also presents a profound threat to the country. Whatever one thought of the Republican Party pre-Trump, it was not fundamentally illiberal or nihilistic; its leaders were not sociopathic, merciless con men, wantonly cruel and lawless. No area of Trump’s life appears to have been untouched by moral corruption.

As a young man, I was influenced by conservative intellectuals like George Will, Irving Kristol and James Q. Wilson. I served in three Republican administrations, including as a senior adviser in the White House under President George W. Bush, and voted Republican in nine consecutive presidential elections, beginning with Mr. Reagan in 1980. My political “tribe” was Republican; so were most of my friends. To see what the Republican Party has become is mortifying. As someone who loves America, I find it terrifying.

To get a better sense of this moment, I reached out to the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham. “Historically speaking, the forces now in control of the Republican Party represent the most significant threat to basic constitutionalism we’ve experienced since the Civil War,” Mr. Meacham, who has helped devise some of President Biden’s speeches, told me. “That’s not a partisan point; it’s just the fact of the matter. And I’m not talking about particular policies, about which we can and should disagree. I’m talking about the self-evident willingness of a once-noble party to embrace lies and the will to power over essential democratic norms.”

Since 2015, I have repeatedly warned Republicans about Trump, describing him as the kind of demagogue the founders feared, malignant and malicious, a man with a disordered personality. At this point eight years ago, I said that while the struggle for the Republican nomination was over, the struggle for the soul of the party was not.

Once Trump won the presidency, I knew it was. He and the Republican Party fused ideologically; it’s now a populist rather than a conservative party. It’s instincts are nativist, protectionist and isolationist. But the most significant fusion is ethical and moral. The Republican Party keeps getting darker. It has become anti-intellectual, conspiracy-minded and authoritarian, intemperate and brutish, transgressive and anarchistic. And there’s no end in sight.

Trump is a human blowtorch, prepared to burn down democracy. So is his party. When there’s no bottom, there’s no bottom.

The next 34 weeks are among the more consequential in the life of this nation. Trump was a clear danger in 2016; he’s much more of a danger now. The former president is more vengeful, more bitter and more unstable than he was, which is saying something. There would be fewer guardrails and more true believers in a second Trump term. He’s already shown he’ll overturn an election, support a violent insurrection and even allow his vice president to be hanged. There’s nothing he won’t do. It’s up to the rest of us to keep him from doing it.

Peter Wehner is a contributing Opinion writer and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.