What the hell happened to the Republican Party?
I’ve been asking myself this question since Donald Trump began his hostile takeover in 2015. After the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, there’s a whole new urgency to the inquiry.
The GOP bears a ton of responsibility for what happened at the Capitol, not just because it has nurtured Trump’s excesses for the last four years but also because it has helped spread objectively false claims about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
Earlier this week, I spoke to authors Geoffrey Kabaservice and Daniel Ziblatt about the history of the Republican Party and why the radicalization we’re seeing today is different from that of previous eras. But I also wanted to talk to someone on the legislative side about what members of the party are thinking now and why they seem unable to pull back from the brink.
So I reached out to David Jolly, a former GOP congressman from Florida. Jolly left Congress in 2017 and, shortly thereafter, renounced his membership in the Republican Party. We spoke back in 2019 as Trump’s first impeachment trial was about to begin, and at the time, Jolly told me that Republicans in Congress were “tearing at the fabric of the Constitution every bit as much as Donald Trump” and “undermining the institution of Congress every bit as much as Trump.”
But while he’s grown estranged from his party, Jolly has kept up with his former colleagues — nearly 150 of whom formally objected to the results of the 2020 election even after the raid on the Capitol. I wanted to pick up the thread with Jolly and get his thoughts on his former party, which appears to have gotten only more radical since we last spoke.
In this conversation, the following transcript of which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we discuss how the GOP reached this precipice, why so many Republicans still refuse to do what they know they ought to do, and whether Jolly believes the party has to be destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up.
When we last spoke, we were on the verge of the first impeachment trial, and I think it’s fair to say that you were shocked by the shamelessness of so many of your fellow Republicans. Did you ever imagine that it would get this bad?
No. We certainly all hoped it wouldn’t. We all hoped the division wouldn’t break into violence. But I think we all feared it because there was evidence of it through the last four years. You take Charlottesville as an example. You take some of his rallies where candidate Trump or President Trump would suggest roughing up a protester or telling cops to maybe bang the heads of criminals as you’re putting them in the car.
So, were we aware that this could happen? I think so. Were we hopeful it wouldn’t? Certainly. Were we surprised that it finally did? Nope.
I think the more surprising thing is that Trump actually incited an insurrection and brought violence into the sanctuary of the House and Senate chamber and still, for the most part, maintained control of the GOP. That it took nearly a week to begin to see the slightest little fractures in support for the president from his GOP allies in the Senate and the House is surprising.
What do you think Republicans were telling themselves these last two months as Trump continued to lie about the election and they, for the most part, cynically indulged those lies? They had to see the dangers, right?
I don’t know, because they haven’t faced any consequences for their actions these last four years. You could say we saw violence at the Michigan Capitol or that we saw unrest in the streets, but members [of] Congress are far removed from that. And so if the president of their party wanted to stoke this false information campaign, the Republican members I know were happy to just kind of smile and look the other way.
We essentially heard that narrative from members. People kept saying, “Just let the president have his time to do his thing, and at the end of the day he’ll leave office peacefully.” Well, they were wrong. And I think it’s telling that the members of Congress that are coming forward now to distance themselves from the president — they’re all the members that actually knew better the last four years but didn’t act.
And the ones that are defending him in this moment, I don’t think they ever knew better. They’re not just supporting the politics of the president — this is their politics, too.
A question I’ve been asking is whether these Republicans in Congress really believe what they’re saying, or whether they’re too cowardly or self-interested to do what’s right because they fear the political consequences. If you’re right, and you’d know better than I would, it’s a bit of both.
It’s interesting because I don’t think even the Trump wing of the GOP is a monolithic body. And to your point, some of the members — and I know this from personal conversations — believe that the election was rigged. They really believe it. Now, is that because Trump said it, or Fox News echoed it, or their constituents in super-gerrymandered districts told them? These things definitely get amplified by right-wing media to the point where a lot of people fully absorb it.
So there are lots of these people who truly believe it, not because they saw anything with their own eyes but because they’ve emerged as politicians in that type of echo chamber. But certainly there are others, and I would put Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley in this lane, that know the president’s claims are false. They know there is no evidence, and that a commission or a study would reveal nothing. And so they lean on the line that their constituents are concerned, and they owe it to their constituents to get answers.
You mentioned you still talk to some of your former colleagues who are in Congress and that some of them really believe this shit. Do you talk to others who tell you privately that they know it’s all nonsense but refuse to say so publicly?
Oh, yeah. I had a conversation just in the last 48 hours with a member who I thought would have voted to impeach the president. And when I asked him how he was going to vote, he almost scoffed. He’s a hard “no” on impeachment. I asked him if he’s even given it a thought, he told me, “No, I’m already expecting a primary two years from now. There’s no way I can vote to impeach.” Well, that’s a member exercising purely political judgment.
I suppose there are defenders who would suggest that that is how political pressure is supposed to work from constituents to their elected representatives. But I think there’s merit in Mitt Romney’s view, which he articulated on the Senate floor, that it’s beyond time for our elected officials to tell the voters the truth.
I should say that there are reports today [January 13] that several Republicans in Congress want to vote for impeachment but literally fear for their lives if they do. What would you say to them if you were still in Congress? What are you saying to them now?
You know, Sean, the first thing I’d say is that I understand. We currently have a restraining order against an individual who threatened my life. I tell you now because it’s a matter of public record. I was threatened for continuing to speak out against Trump. All I can tell you is that he expressed a clear interest in causing harm to me and my family. And for the last three years, we’ve lived knowing this individual is within miles of our home and that he’s now wearing an ankle bracelet. It’s on our mind every single day.
So, what would I say to members of Congress? I’d say this is part of what we signed up for. And I don’t mean we signed up for threats of violence. But in being willing to serve, you also have accepted the public role that comes with making hard decisions as to where our nation should be going and what constitutional values we are going to try to affirm in our role as elected officials. I don’t think you can let the threat of violence influence a vote in this matter. And if you do, I suppose you’re answering to the wrong conviction.
You’re still out there; you’re still very public in your criticisms of the GOP. Are you still dealing with constant threats?
It’s a daily thing. And it’s fine if you want to put this in the transcript, but just this morning actually, my wife and I, we’re moving into a new home and we have a new baby coming, and two cars pulled up and slowed down, likely just to look at who the new people in the neighborhood are. But my wife and I immediately looked with scrutiny at who it might be and whether or not we need to immediately prepare for our safety.
This is the political environment we’re in now, and it’s been fueled by the mere words of political leaders. But I want to say that I don’t think we should have much sympathy for people in Congress, because what’s come under attack, what’s being threatened, isn’t just the physical safety of elected officials but the nation itself. We’re all living through this division together.
So rather than focusing on whether elected officials deserve our empathy in this moment, we should focus on the expectations that we deservedly put on them. And for some, that means you are a part of the last four years that enabled us to get to this moment, by empowering Donald Trump and by looking the other way as he continued to escalate towards what we saw last Wednesday.
I don’t want to imply that Republicans aren’t responsible for doing the right thing, whatever the risks. But I do think it’s important to say that Republicans occupy an incentive structure in which doing the right thing basically means committing professional suicide.
I’ll put it even more bluntly: The Republican Party is being held hostage by a violent cult, and that cult presents a massive demand-side problem for the GOP moving forward. According to one poll, 45 percent of Republicans agree with the assault on the Capitol. That’s totally fucking nuts, David, and I don’t think anyone knows what to do about it.
Look, there is a violent political movement that has found safe harbor in the Republican Party. That is not to say the Republican Party writ large is a violent political movement. But the violence we saw in the name of politics emerged through Trump’s GOP. And as swiftly as I criticize the president, I am measured and careful not to unnecessarily take a cheap shot.
The actions we saw last Wednesday have always been somewhere within our political culture, but we haven’t seen the level of violence. So what changed? What changed is an individual who emerged through the Republican Party, who was elevated by the Republican Party, who was embraced and celebrated. And even among his critics and detractors from within the party, they chose to enable him at every step.
That’s what’s different in today’s Republican Party. The leadership of one man, who has given a permission structure to a violent political movement to participate in what is otherwise the mainstream political activities of one of the two major parties in the country. And even though we’re seeing some signs of resistance, from people like Mitch McConnell and Liz Cheney, they’re not going to push Trump out of the party. It’s not going to happen.
You’re probably right, but where does that leave the party?
The reality is that the GOP coalition has no shot at a majority if they lose either the establishment or the Trumpian populists. And so if they’re going to have this war, it’s going to put the GOP in the wilderness for a long time, and they each know it. And that’s why it’s intriguing to watch what McConnell does. It’s intriguing to watch the hypocritical gymnastics of Kevin McCarthy. Because they all know if they let this thing break wide open, they’re a minority party for probably a decade.
Is it possible — maybe not likely, but possible — that this moment will be some kind of tipping point for the party?
It may be a tipping point, and maybe the party breaks apart. But I don’t think it’s a tipping point if by that you mean the party breaks away from Trump. Maybe this is some kind of “shatter the glass” moment, but there’s no rebuilding strategy. There’s no post-Trump plan. And they all know it.
As we talk now, it looks like only six Republicans in Congress are supporting the impeachment resolution today [10 Republicans eventually voted yes]. Does that number surprise you at all?
No, it doesn’t. I wish we saw something different. But it also doesn’t surprise me who the six are. It’s somewhat expected.
The story really is the number of Republicans who have stuck with the president. This was an incitement of an insurrection that led to the deaths of people and threatened the lives of members of Congress. And yet they don’t see it, which goes back to my first point, which is that they’re underestimating the politics of the moment. They’re underestimating the threat of this moment. And whether it’s out of ignorance or just a wishful thinking that this all goes away, I think Republicans are failing the nation and largely failing themselves in this moment.
If the party doesn’t course-correct, if the cult of Trumpism survives the Trump presidency, does the GOP need to be destroyed from the ground up?
Look, that’s been my case for a while because the entire class of elected Republicans are the ones that have enabled and celebrated Trump. I don’t find them any more trustworthy than the principal himself.
I think what the future holds will depend largely on what Donald Trump does in the next few years. Does he try to keep control of the Republican Party? Because even if he fails, he’ll keep control of half of it. Or does Trump, in his own self-interest, find his fame and fortune in another endeavor outside of politics? The party will be stronger if Trump is gone.
We’ll see what route he takes. If Trump or his family tries to stay on top of the party, we’re in for a long road. I don’t see how the GOP recovers from that. And yet, to put all this in context, even now we’re talking about a party that nearly won the presidency, still controls half the Senate, and has a chance of recapturing the House. So the party can still be a viable competitor to the Democrats.
But will we ever see the Republican Party of yesterday? I doubt it.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that empowers you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts to all who need them. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today, from as little as $3.