Over the winter and spring, I spoke to half a dozen moderate Republican members and anti-Trump GOP operatives to understand what had happened. One of them was Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an outspoken leader of the small but vocal anti-Trump faction of the party.
“It’s all about the money, man,” Kinzinger tells me. Trump may be underwater in the polls, but his base adores him more than ever, and that’s where the money is. Trump’s 2020 campaign raised nearly $229 million in small-dollar donations. After the election, as Trump whipped his supporters into a frenzy over phony election-fraud claims, he raised another $170 million in a few months’ time. The Trump base, in other words, is a spigot of campaign cash. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — she of the Jewish space-laser conspiracy theory — raised more than $3 million in the first three months of 2021 alone, one of the biggest sums of any House member. Kinzinger wasn’t the least bit surprised to see McCarthy visit Mar-a-Lago soon after the insurrection to enlist Trump for the GOP’s 2022 midterm efforts. “The fastest way to get the majority back is to raise money,” Kinzinger says.
The energy in the Trump base cuts both ways. It can also be used to instill fear — fear that if you’re insufficiently loyal to Trump, you’ll face a primary challenger and lose your seat. There’s also the fear that without Trump the party loses access to all that money from the base. Rep. Meijer tells me that Trump knows that his base is where the energy is in the Republican Party. “It’s that not-so-veiled threat — or very direct [threat] when musing about starting a third party — that ‘I’ll take my supporters and walk away,’ ” Meijer says. The GOP also has four years of evidence at the ballot box to suggest that, without Trump on the ballot, the party can’t put together a winning coalition in key swing states. Look at the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won in a landslide, or the 2021 special elections in Georgia, when two Democratic candidates upset incumbent Republicans and flipped the Senate majority. “We really have an internal electoral calculus problem that no one knows how to solve,” Meijer says.
For now, the solution as envisioned by McCarthy and McConnell appears to be twofold: Hug Trump tightly, and try to make that a winning coalition by locking out a lot of people who aren’t in it. In the name of “election integrity” and restoring “faith” in the system, Republican state legislators have weaponized the Big Lie by introducing hundreds of voter-suppression laws in nearly every state this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. On moral grounds, this strategy is cynical and repugnant. As a political strategy, it makes perfect sense: The base reveres Trump with near cult-like adoration, and so the only way to win is to embrace Trump and his followers while making it harder to vote for everyone else.
Sarah Longwell, a never-Trump Republican who founded the group Republican Voters Against Trump, ties together all of these forces into what she calls the “Republican triangle of doom.” “There’s a toxic and symbiotic relationship between base voters, right-wing infotainment, and the politicians,” she tells me. Tucker Carlson, Newsmax, and far-right content producers on Facebook and YouTube feed their audiences a steady stream of reactionary vitriol and conspiracy theories; the base voters, gorged on right-wing infotainment, make ever more extreme and outlandish demands of their politicians; and the politicians, fearful of losing their next primary, give those voters what they want and get rewarded with money, TV airtime, and seniority in the party.