Senate Republicans have the opportunity to not only convict Donald Trump of “incitement of insurrection,” but also punish him with a ban on ever running for political office again, so he could never again be president or the standard-bearer of the Republican Party. If you are a Republican who believes Trump is a figurative cancer on the GOP, then this is your best chance to remove the tumor.
The problem, as with any operation, is that the procedure comes with risk. For one thing, the surgeon might not remove all of the cancerous growth. What if Trump and Trumpism have already spread too widely inside the party? Even if he can’t run again, he can still function as a de facto party boss, installing loyalists in the party hierarchy, endorsing candidates, encouraging primary challenges, and running family members for office up to and including the presidency.
Or the cancer may re-appear in another part of the body politic: a new third-party. A nationwide “Trump Party,” if it can master the byzantine state-by-state ballot access process, would ensure that Trump’s name remains on the ballot even if he were no longer allowed to run himself. A party of his own could be a lucrative grift, a fundraising vehicle that sucks up money from his loyalists and skims a significant portion of it into The Trump Organization’s network of businesses. Creating such a schism would also be a potent weapon of revenge against a Republican Party leadership whom Trump has portrayed as backstabbers.
Donald Trump wouldn’t be the first ex-president to divide his former party in two. Teddy Roosevelt stormed out of the 1912 Republican convention, accused his successor, William Howard Taft, and party regulars of robbing him of the presidential nomination, and grabbed the banner of the Progressive Party. The current and former presidents split the Republican vote, helping elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Millard Fillmore, by running as the 1856 presidential nominee of the American Party (or “Know Nothing” Party), accelerated the death of his Whig Party by attracting its conservative supporters, while opponents of slavery flocked to the new Republican Party. Like Wilson, Democrat James Buchanan defeated his splintered opposition with less than 50% of the vote.
The 1848 presidential election saw Martin Van Buren running as the first nominee of the Free Soil Party and peeling off opponents of expanded slavery from the Democratic Party. Van Buren’s gambit helped Whig candidate Zachary Taylor snatch four Northern states with plurality support, enough to win the Electoral College.
All of these examples involve third-party presidential bids by former presidents, something Trump could not directly do himself if convicted in the Senate and barred from running again. But he certainly could give life to a third party, throw his support to its presidential nominee — one who might share his last name — and unsubtly suggest he would be the power behind the throne.
Should these examples scare Republican straight, and avoid provoking Trump with an electoral death penalty? No. Granted, the Whigs didn’t survive their 1856 schism. But it was already deeply divided over slavery, and Fillmore wouldn’t have been able to save it even if he wanted to. But the Republican and Democratic parties did survive their temporary schisms, by adapting to new political realities.
While it’s far from the most noble chapter in its history, the Democratic Party was able to let the Free Soilers go after 1848 and successfully regroup in 1852 with New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce. A supporter of the Compromise of 1850 and its Fugitive Slave Act, Pierce was able to almost completely unify North and South while the Whigs struggled with the slavery issue. (Though Democrats would soon suffer an even deeper schism when Southerners seceded from the Union, the party’s Unionists and Confederates would reunite after the Civil War.) The re-nomination of Taft in 1912 set the Republican Party on a century-long conservative course, one Teddy Roosevelt helped solidify when he abandoned the Progressive Party and endorsed the 1916 GOP nominee.
Republicans can’t know today how much revenge Trump would be able exact on their party if they effectively excommunicated him. Maybe Trump’s base of supporters is big enough to maintain control of the party, or fatally rip it in two. But for a Republican who wants to be part of a party that cares about enacting conservative policies more than blindly worshiping a nihilistic autocrat, the prospect of Trump running for president again under your party’s banner cannot be tenable. The fight for control of the party must be waged; excising the cancer must at least be attempted.
If banning Trump from office means the loss of millions of QAnon supporters and other delusional cultists, so be it. Republicans should have faith that they can adapt to a new political landscape, and compete with Democrats for the votes of rational Americans. If rational Republicans are not in big enough supply today to retain control of the GOP, then they can draw inspiration from their own origin story.
After all, it was the anti-slavery Whigs who recognized their party had become a useless shell, then left it to launch the Republican Party and change the course of history.
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