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The Republicans Are Also in Disarray

Democratic squabbling and inertia have garnered most of the headlines. But the GOP is an unholy mess.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

These days, the “Democrats in Disarray” stories practically write themselves. Joe Biden’s approval rating has bottomed out. Infighting has stalled the party’s legislative agenda. Crises both foreign and domestic—the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ever-imminent invasion of Ukraine, inflation—have been albatrosses around the party’s neck. Momentum is fickle in politics, but Biden and the Democrats haven’t held it for months. With the midterms only nine months away, the party is struggling to recapture some energy. Its chances of retaining its slim majorities in both houses are so infinitesimally small as to be statistically nonexistent.  

The press has dutifully and understandably focused on the Democrats’ struggles to get out of the mud. Biden ran on the promise of generational change—an “FDR-size presidency.” He has thus far had to settle for something more reminiscent of the muddle that Barack Obama experienced between his first and second terms. Bickering between the party’s flanks has been reliable catnip for conflict-obsessed Beltway hacks, even if more often than not the Democrats’ failure to get much of anything done has boiled down to the intransigence of Joe Manchin and the idiocy of Kyrsten Sinema. Their existence in the party means that the Democrats’ governing trifecta forever has an asterisk. Nevertheless, it is a trifecta, and the party’s failure to do much with it can’t not be an important story; the bloodbath everyone anticipates in November demands attention, as well. 

But the Republican Party is also a hot mess at the moment. Donald Trump’s push to purge the party of anyone who has shown even the slightest hint of disloyalty has led to primary challenges against the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him for his role in the January 6, 2021, riot. The party’s primary season is shaping up to be intense and drawn-out, pitting various slavering right-wingers against each other in a desperate quest to prove which one is the Trumpist true believer with the purest bodily fluids. 

Its voters, meanwhile, aggressively back the former president’s claims that the election was stolen—and that sitting Republicans did not do enough to take it back from conniving Democrats. They are pissed off and on the hunt for candidates who are arguably even angrier. “Primaries are always fucked up to some degree, but it’s different now,” John Thomas, a Republican strategist, told Politico. “There’s more self-hate than there was before. Ten years ago, we’d argue about who was more pro-gun, who was more pro-life. Now my clients are going RINO-hunting [the colloquial term for a “Republican in Name Only”], which is a level of disdain that was not there before in our party.”

One of the striking aspects of the Republican primaries is how issue-less they’ve become. There is seemingly less talk about social issues than ever before; there’s scant interest in solutions and ideas. Inflation may be Biden’s Achilles heel, but there’s little policy talk about what to do about it, beyond the usual hand-waving about government handouts that would exist regardless of the state of the economy. Republicans are simply clawing at each other’s throats about Donald Trump and the last election and who can be the reddest-in-the-face about it. 

Ohio’s primary for its GOP Senate nomination has been a bruising example: J.D. Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author turned slavish bootlicker, has raced rightward with little success, while other Republicans attack one another for being insufficiently loyal to the former president. In Texas, whose primary season kicks off in two weeks, Governor Greg Abbott, who you’d imagine would be impossible to get to the right of, is facing several challengers all foaming at the mouth to make him look like a moderate. In Georgia, Trump is trying to kick out the governor, Brian Kemp, whom he blames for not doing enough to gift the state to him in 2020. 

Meanwhile, in Missouri there is simply pure chaos. Trump is considering backing Eric Greitens, the state’s former governor who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations, because he is performing well in the polls and has promised to vote against Mitch McConnell—the “Old Crow,” in Trump’s term, proof that he was never the “Michael Jordan of name-calling”—if elected. (The far right’s disdain for McConnell, the most effective conservative politician in the land, is a perennial bafflement.)

Trump’s ardor for Greitens hasn’t taken hold with the GOP writ large. Apparently the allegations that Missouri’s former governor faced, that he stripped and bound a woman and took photos of her in a blackmail attempt, remain, in some quarters of the GOP, a bridge too far. But the GOP can’t seem to provide a fitting alternative. “Party operatives know that if they want to stop [Greitens], they need to clear the field so that the anti-Greitens vote isn’t fragmented,” reports Politico. “But they’re at a loss over how to do that. None of the prominent candidates shows any sign of dropping out anytime soon.” (Remind you of anyone?) Trump, meanwhile, is also thinking about changing horses in Alabama, after the candidate he previously backed, Mo Brooks, has underperformed. 

The result has been a most uncivil war, not fought over ideology but over loyalty to the former president; not about public policy or economic solutions but about who can serve as the most unbending conduit of the Republican base’s profound anger. They are, moreover, being played against one another by a former president who’s obsessed with displays of slobbering fealty; he is eagerly dividing the party against itself. The GOP primary season has become a replica of The Apprentice: Endless infighting for little clear purpose beyond Trump’s own gratification. 

For Democrats, this is also a sliver of hope. Yes, they seem well and truly screwed, even with the current state of the Republican field. But across the country, candidates are being encouraged to race rightward and to engage in increasingly histrionic displays of rage. In 2010, this type of politics led to Republicans squandering a lot of opportunities that might have swung their way. Today’s GOP electorate may prove to be more tolerant of such candidates. But if enough GOP candidates hit the howling heights of discord and extremism of which they are capable, it might turn away just enough GOP-curious voters while motivating Democrats to head to the polls. Even if this boon fails to materialize in time to save the Democrats’ bacon, it does put their plight in perspective: The GOP is just as big of a mess.