These Shameless Republicans Desperate to Outlast Trump Know Better, but They Don’t Care
Trump lives in fear of the vapers and lunatics who support him, and ambitious GOP politicians live in fear of Trump.
What do you call people who are more attracted to power than to principles, and who are willing to bow before a bad man if that’s what it takes for them to have power?
Trump Republicans—who, at this point, are almost the only Republicans left. Yet, as the recent political fortunes of Florida’s Ron DeSantis demonstrate, their cynicism could well end up having the better of them.
You can see that cynicism, and the lack of shame, in the likes of JD Vance, a Trump critic now running for Senate as a loyal MAGA man, and first-term Rep. Nancy Mace, two of the party’s smartest and most shameless young politicians, willing to abandon their own stated positions and embrace morally repugnant ones if that’s what it takes to be a member in good standing of the Republican Party. The pandering of Mace and Vance reflects the fact that the Republican Party remains under Trump’s sway, even after he decisively lost the popular vote in 2016, then cost his party control of the House in 2018 and then the White House and Senate in 2020.
It turns out that Joe Biden was right to predict that Trump’s defeat would induce an “epiphany” in the Republican Party—but terribly wrong about what that epiphany would be. A party that’s lashed itself to a proven loser and his most devoted supporters is rapidly becoming ever more enthusiastic in its appeals to racism, nativism, conspiracy theories and frontal attacks on democracy itself.
It’s an approach that is as politically nonsensical as it is morally abhorrent, a descent into overt fascism that is the product of two complementary dynamics: Trump’s fear of losing the support of the extremists and bigots he invited into the party and its seats of power and the fear of the party’s “leaders” of losing the support of Trump himself.
GOP governors planning potential presidential campaigns are publicly touting their opposition to public health measures as their constituents fill up ICUs. Florida’s Ron DeSantis is selling koozies bearing the tagline How the hell am I going to drink a beer with a mask on? and touting a rule barring unvaccinated school children from being required to wear masks, as the Delta variant-fueled virus is, once again, tearing through his state. His aggressive advocacy for viral transmission is likely motivated by the fact that one rival presidential aspirant, South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, touted her even more reckless response to the pandemic to a cheering crowd at CPAC, and mocked DeSantis for implementing some public health measures.
This is madness, yet there is absolutely no reason to expect the party to change course. The madness starts with Trump, terrified of losing the fealty of his supporters, and extends to the Republicans hoping to replace him but afraid to oppose him.
Trump’s fear of alienating the wackos he invited under the GOP tent he slapped his logo on manifested itself in ways that are sometimes comical, but always dangerous. He reportedly scaled back plans to regulate electronic cigarette flavors for fear of alienating his vaping base; and Trump declined to denounce the QAnon conspiracy, saying he didn’t know much about them except that “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
Trump’s palpable fear of alienating any part of his base, no matter how violent or racist, was evident in his talk of the “very fine people” at the lethal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Likewise, when Trump talks about the “loving” mob on Jan. 6 that stormed the Capitol Building in hopes of lynching his vice president, it not only amounts to an endorsement of the insurrection, but also evinces his desperate obeisance to his followers, no matter how repugnant they might be.
Trump’s fear of his own base has, if anything, increased since he fled Washington before Biden’s inauguration. Trump–who had bragged about his purported role in “coming up” with the vaccines–nonetheless got vaccinated in secret for fear of offending the anti-vaxxers in his base. With the Delta variant running wild now, he has emphasized the “freedom” of Americans to refuse the jab.
Just as Trump has prostrated himself before the extremists, bigots and conspiracists he welcomed into the Republican Party, the GOP’s leadership has turned the party more fully into an appendage of Trump, even in the wake of his electoral defeat. As the exile of Liz Cheney from party leadership—with House Minority “Leader” Kevin McCathy dismissing her as a “Pelosi Republican” and others members calling on her to be removed from her committees, something they resisted in the case of Holocaust demeaner and outright buffoon Marjorie Taylor Greene—has demonstrated, fealty to Trump is the only value left in his Republican Party.
Other Trump-supporting Republicans in good standing include Matt Gaez, who is reportedly being investigated for obstruction of justice in connection with an investigation of his alleged participation in a sex trafficking ring, and Paul Gosar, who has made a point of appearing in public beside avowed white supremacists.
Vance, whose 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy was widely praised at the time as a guide to understanding people with Appalachian roots who felt left behind and in many cases were drawn to Trump, initially distinguished himself as a Republican critic of Trump. He was born to a mother who struggled with opioid addiction, only to become a Marine, Yale-trained lawyer, successful author, and Silicon Valley money man. But now Vance has decided to remake himself as a Trump worshipper in preparation for a run at a Senate seat in Ohio.
Vance systematically purged Twitter of his past criticisms of Trump, and embarked on a cynical and transparently consultant-driven attempt to reinvent himself as a mouthpiece for every resentment or conspiracy theory that is prevalent among Trump supporters in the moment. Among his now constant preoccupations are the hordes of undocumented immigrants allegedly on the march from Mexico to take the jobs and attack the citizenry of Ohio, as well as the critical-race-theorizing teachers who are allegedly scheming to cause the white children of the state to recoil at the color of their own skin. When Vance is not feigning fear at the prospect of walking the streets of New York, which he “jokes” are like the set of The Walking Dead, he is on Fox News criticizing Simone Biles for her supposed weakness.
Vance utters this bile with an ever-present tone of self-parody, and while frequently wearing a smirk, as if to signal his friends, I am just doing this to get elected.
Vance, however, is almost outdone by Mace, a first-term GOP member of Congress from a swing district in South Carolina who based her political career on a book in which she recounted her endurance of vicious misogynistic attacks as a cadet at the Citadel military academy (which her father once commanded). In the wake of the insurrection, Mace declared that, “Everything that we’ve accomplished in the last four years is wiped out in the violence that happened. We have to start over. We need to rebuild our nation. We need to rebuild our party.” But soon afterward, Mace recognized that she had misjudged the prevailing winds in her party and decided to make herself into one of the most visibly Trumpish members of her caucus in apparent preparation for the upcoming primary season.
Mace began strategically picking Twitter battles with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in which she contended that her Democratic colleague was exaggerating the dangers of Jan. 6 that Mace herself had so recently decried. Mace also repeatedly appeared on Fox News, where she declared that she was packing heat to use against potential antifa attacks. Then Mace called the press to report that her house had been vandalized by lawless leftists, and voted to boot Liz Cheney from the GOP leadership for saying the same things Mace herself had said about Trump. Most recently, Mace posted a video of herself on Twitter daring Speaker Pelosi—whom she labeled “insane”—to “come and get me” for going maskless, even as her home state is suffering from a deadly resurgence of the pandemic.
Vance and Mace have each transformed themselves, in short order, into images of the very evils they’d previously decried, in transparent efforts to pander to Trump, or at least avoid his wrath. In that regard, these cynical careerists are themselves mirror images of Trump himself, operating in palpable fear of alienating a fanatical conspiracist, at the cost not only of placing them morally at sea, but also of rendering themselves as repugnant to those voters who are not conspiracizing racists as Trump has become.
But it may be DeSantis who best exemplifies the GOP’s complete surrender to nihilism. In an increasingly desperate effort to maintain his status as the leading advocate for COVID—and with it his viability as Trumpish presidential aspirant—DeSantis has engaged in increasingly mendacious, and even homicidal, measures.
DeSantis has relentlessly attacked the press for questioning his fairytale account of the pandemic. His administration also fired and smeared a whistleblower, with his allies in law enforcement sending gun-wielding officers to raid her house. Most recently, DeSantis’s health department recently simply stopped providing timely reporting on COVID statistics, leaving it to his Democratic rival, Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, to inform Floridians about the progress of a pandemic that is, again, raging in the state.
DeSantis’s pandemic health “policies” have also become increasingly irrational, and outright dangerous.
DeSantis recently challenged a CDC order requiring cruise ships leaving from Florida to obtain proof of vaccination from passengers. DeSantis likely was counting on the courts to void his order, but an appeals court panel recently refused to do so, which may well lead many cruise operators —who do not want to be forced to (once again) turn their ships into floating superspreader events—to flee the state, at great cost to the Florida economy.
Florida children—including those too young to be vaccinated—are now being stricken with serious COVID cases in unprecedented numbers. DeSantis’s response to this development, which is frightening parents across the state, was to bar school boards from requiring mask wearing when they reopen in the fall. Last week, DeSantis, appearing at an indoor gathering of largely unmasked supporters, joked that children would not be able to wear masks properly anyway, and said he preferred seeing kids smile to having them take the only measure available to limit their risks of hospitalization, or even death.
DeSantis’ cavalier treatment of the life and health of Florida voters, and that of their children, is entirely irrational for a politician who will soon be facing those some voters in a bid for re-election. It is irrational, that is, until one considers that DeSantis is far more concerned with an audience other than that of the voters he serves: that of Donald Trump and the extremists he panders to. Indeed, the anti-vaxers Trump has been cultivating lately recently criticized DeSantis as a “sellout” simply because he encouraged people to get vaccinated. Former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said that, by acknowledging that the vaccines work, DeSantis was letting political correctness get in the way of health choices.
After President Biden expressed dismay at the refusal of DeSantis and other red state governors to implement mitigation measures in the face of the newly raging virus, DeSantis—whose poll numbers are rapidly falling—declared that he does not “want to hear a blip about COVID” from the president. In a bizarre echo of George Wallace’s famous stand in the schoolhouse door in an attempt to prevent integration, DeSantis repeatedly declared that he will “stand in [the] way” of purported federal public health measures on Florida schoolchildren.
But it is, in fact, the governor who has been seeking to prevent Florida school districts from choosing to follow CDC guidance in the midst of the pandemic. And DeSantis is suddenly finding that appealing to Trumpish COVID denialists at the expense of children’s lives may have a political cost. After initially knuckling under to DeSantis’ threats, several Florida school districts have implemented (or re-implemented) mask mandates at the behest of concerned parents. And polling is starting to indicate that the governor, who was until recently considered a lock for reelection, has a race on his hands.
As DeSantis’ apparent change of political fortune demonstrates, GOP leaders are not only nihilistic, but politically oblivious if they think that appealing to literally homicidal extremism is a path of political success. Simply put, suburban parents do not favor political parties that promote the sickness and death of their children.
Even in the wake of Trump’s loss, the GOP and its leaders chose to throw in their lot with the most odious and marginal political faction to have gained power in the nation since the Civil War. They may win some elections in the near term, but that will not change an inescapable fact: The GOP has chosen to place itself at direct odds with the majority of the citizens of its own country. That is how political parties ultimately die.