Published on April 26, 2021
The hope of many conservative critics of Donald Trump was that soon after his defeat, and especially in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, the Republican Party would snap back into its former shape. The Trump presidency would end up being no more than an ugly parenthesis. The GOP would distance itself from Trump and Trumpism, and become a normal party once again.
But that dream soon died. The Trump presidency might have been the first act in a longer and even darker political drama, in which the Republican Party is becoming more radicalized. How long this will last is an open question; whether it is happening is not.
The radicalization manifests in myriad ways, most notably in Trump’s enduring popularity among Republicans. Trump’s loyalists have launched ferocious attacks against Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him for his role in the insurrection, even as national Republicans eagerly position themselves as his heir. Right-wing media display growing fanaticism, while public-opinion polls show GOP voters embracing Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him. The Republican Party’s illiberalism, its barely disguised nativism, and its white identity politics are resonating with extremist groups. Slate’s Will Saletan, in an article cataloging recent developments, summarized things this way: “The Republican base is thoroughly infected with sympathies for the insurrection.”
To better grasp what’s happening among 2020 Trump voters, I spoke with Sarah Longwell, a lifelong conservative and political strategist who is now the publisher of The Bulwark, a news and opinion website that is home to anti-Trump conservatives. She is also the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, now the Republican Accountability Project.
Since 2018, Longwell has spent hundreds of hours speaking with and listening to Trump voters. From 2018 to 2020, she concentrated her attention on people who voted for Trump in 2016 but whose support was not locked in for 2020—many of them college-educated, suburban voters, mostly women who rated Trump’s performance as bad to very bad. Since Trump left office, she’s been using her focus groups to understand how his supporters’ views are changing.
Longwell has discovered that these voters, including many in Georgia who cast their ballots for Trump in November, have since grown more “Q curious”—she’s hearing more people talk positively about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that, among other things, posits the existence of a satanic pedophile cult run by top Democrats.
Prior to November 3, 2020, Longwell told me, “I almost never heard QAnon come up, except in a way that was derisive.” But postelection she’s had people “lean in and say, ‘I’m not saying I believe everything about Q. I’m not saying that the JFK-Jr.-is-alive stuff is real, but the deep-state pedophile ring is real.’” (The QAnon theory is that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his own death to become the group’s leader.) In Longwell’s words, “The deep-state/conspiracy/Hollywood pedophile ring, that is in there. I’m hearing that plenty.” She added, “It’s actually pretty Marjorie Taylor Greene–like.” (Greene, who represents Georgia’s Fourteenth District, has praised the conspiracy theory and subscribes to a number of its beliefs.)
As Longwell explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a “deep state”—an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government—has been working against Trump since before he was elected. “That’s already baked into the narrative,” she said. So it’s relatively easy for them to make the jump from believing that the deep state was behind the “Russia hoax” to thinking that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.
A second finding, according to Longwell, is that for the first time, she’s hearing people say they pretty regularly tune in to Newsmax or One America News Network, two conspiracy-theory-minded MAGA television news outlets. She’s heard from some people in her focus groups that “Fox has gone too far left.” Overall, what she sees isn’t Trump supporters fleeing Fox in huge numbers so much as experiencing some cooling of their enthusiasm and a willingness to look to other sources of information. (Tucker Carlson, the most malicious and influential figure at Fox News, does have a certain rock-star status in MAGA world.)
Finding No. 3 is that many Trump voters believe the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. Not everyone Longwell has spoken with believes that absent fraud, Trump would have won, though many do. (Nearly two-thirds of Republicans believe that Trump won the election.) But in MAGA world, the almost universal assumption is that the election was rife with fraud, despite the fact that the Trump administration’s own election-monitoring agencies issued a statement declaring the 2020 election to be “the most secure in American history”; Trump’s ever-loyal attorney general, Bill Barr, acknowledged that the Justice Department uncovered no evidence of fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election; and election officials nationwide, from both parties, found no evidence of fraud.
“Everybody thinks dead people voted,” Longwell said, adding, “There’re plenty of people who say, ‘I think Donald Trump won. This was stolen from him. This is Democrats cheating. They figured it out. They know how to cheat better.’”
A fourth trend Longwell has noticed in her focus groups is the rise of whataboutism. She’ll point out to participants that Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that the Parkland and Sandy Hook shootings were staged; Longwell then asks them what they make of that.
If compelling evidence is presented to MAGA supporters that what they’re being told by Greene or others is a lie, they don’t engage directly with the evidence. According to Longwell, “They say, ‘What about Ilhan Omar?’ They say, ‘What about [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]?’” As Longwell puts it, “They’ve got these things down, which is ‘Whatever you just showed me about Marjorie Taylor Greene is irrelevant because Ilhan Omar, because AOC, and I know lots about that, and I can tell you all about it.’” Some focus-group participants report that they like how Greene “speaks her mind.”
Greene raised $3.2 million during the first quarter of 2021. That’s a staggering sum, especially for a freshman member of the House, and she told the world the lesson she has taken from it: “I stood my ground and never wavered in my belief in ‘America First’ policies and putting people over politicians! And I will NEVER back down! As a matter of fact, I’m just getting started.” The fact that Greene has been criticized for her views actually works to her advantage; she is tapping into the grievance culture, the “own the libs” mentality, that right now dominates the Republican Party.
“Right-wing media has primed people for two very clear reactions to avoiding any confrontation with the bad thing that’s going on, on their own side,” Longwell explained. “And that is to say, ‘What about the left? What about this example of Democrats?’—that’s No. 1. And No. 2, ‘Why does the media never talk about that?’ So the media is as much an enemy as Democrats, and they believe that they’re connected to each other in this way.”
The irony is that those complaining that the media never talk about Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are watching media that talk all the time about Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The news outlets that the MAGA faithful are tuning in to feature “essentially a constant attack on mainstream media that they see as corrupt and in bed with liberal Democrats, and so the entire narrative is that you are being lied to, not told things,” Longwell said. This plays into what was once a healthy skepticism on the right, a refusal to passively accept the narratives being told by elite media outlets. But that healthy skepticism has “jumped the shark,” according to Longwell, to where “it becomes an obsessive way” of thinking, “where you now live in a post-truth nihilism.”
Trump followers believe they are independent thinkers, unlike the rest of us, whom they view as sheep, people who are “just sleepwalking through life,” in Longwell’s phrase—too naive, too compliant, too trusting. This explains how the effort to combat COVID-19 was derailed; much of MAGA world rejected what epidemiologists were saying, including about the efficacy of masks and vaccines, and turned the fight against the pandemic into a culture war between those they viewed as arrogant elitists and liberty-loving Americans. In this instance, living in an alternate reality—a place where masks are mocked, hydroxychloroquine is said to be a COVID-19 cure, and calls to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” are viewed as acts of patriotism—had deadly consequences. So did Trump’s lie about the election, which led to the storming of the Capitol.
This is part of what Longwell refers to as a “poisonous information environment,” in which even less-than-enthusiastic Trump voters are disoriented by the flood of misinformation and disinformation. Longwell, in characterizing what focus-group participants have told her, puts it this way: “‘I just don’t know what to believe anymore. I don’t know what’s true.’”
Bear in mind that these people are often being sent links and Facebook postings that include false information—but because that information is sent by friends and individuals they trust, they tend to believe what they read, or at least be open to the conspiracy theories being peddled. And the widespread loss of trust in institutions and authority figures, which has been happening for decades, compounds the problem.
Longwell also offered insights into a phenomenon that both fascinates and concerns me: political tribalism. Too many behaviors and attitudes are now driven by very strong loyalty to political tribes or social groups, or by antipathy and hatred for those on the other side. Many Americans are coalescing around their mutual resentments and fears. Tribalism is intrinsic to human nature, but it’s growing more acute. Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, has written about how in America today, every group feels threatened. That is a prescription not just for misunderstanding, but for more political violence.
“You can see it,” Longwell told me. “Once everybody in the group kind of knows that they’re all Trump voters, and they all kind of dislike the left, they immediately identify with their in-group.” They start to bond with one another, she explained, reveling in their shared loathing of figures such as Omar and Ocasio-Cortez.
Often, what we think are public-policy debates are really about issues of core identity. This helps explain the unusual intensity surrounding politics these days.
Longwell laments what she refers to as the “symbiotic relationship” between Republican voters and politicians. The base is angry, radicalized, and prone to catastrophize; Republican politicians believe that stirring up the base is in their self-interest; and so Republican lawmakers, combined with the right-wing media ecosystem, inflame emotions even more.
Longwell holds the Trumpian political class more responsible than she does ordinary voters, though she doesn’t let voters off the hook. But she believes that the former know better and are acting more cynically, while she has some sympathy for many Republican voters. “They’re not bad people,” she insisted. “They’re just—they don’t know what to believe or they have been told a bunch of things that aren’t true.” And that confusion, she argued, has been unscrupulously exploited. “Broadly speaking, I think that there are a lot of people who are out to take advantage of the fact that people don’t quite know what to think.”
Many of those who are part of MAGA world are post-truth, subordinating reality to partisanship and ideology, but they are not, strictly speaking, relativists. Or to be more precise: They don’t believe they’re relativists; in fact, they would argue to their dying breath that they’re defending the truth. The problem is that the information sources on which they’re relying, and that they seek out, are built on falsehoods and lies. Many Trump supporters aren’t aware of this, and for complicated reasons many of them are, for now at least, content to live in a world detached from objective facts, from reality, from the way things really and truly are. And without agreement on what constitutes reality, we’re lost.
After Trump’s defeat in November, and especially after his effort to overturn the election results and the role he played in provoking an unprecedented attack on the citadel of American democracy, Republican leaders could have moved away from the indecency and corruption that defined the Trump era. In their different ways, Representatives Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and Jaime Herrera Beutler and Senators Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Mitch McConnell have done so. “We really can’t become the party of a cult of personality,” Cheney recently warned. “It’s a really scary phenomenon we haven’t seen in this country before.” But even so, most others in the GOP chose to double down.
Having alienated college-educated suburban voters, many consequential Republicans decided their best bet is to keep their contracting coalition in a state of constant agitation and fear, combatants in a never-ending culture war, “embattled warriors making a last stand against the demise of everything,” as a friend of mine describes it. And that, in turn, requires them to feed the base even greater falsehoods.
That is where we are, at least for now, and it does no one any good—least of all conservatives—to pretend otherwise. We saw how well denial and wishful thinking worked out during the Trump presidency.
But where the GOP is now isn’t where it needs to stay. Any party, at any time, can take strides toward decency, honor, and American ideals. It is never too late to do good. But in the current climate, doing good requires some degree of courage, and sometimes courage is not enough to prevail.
All Americans should hope the Republican Party regains its philosophical bearings and moral senses. A healthy conservative party is important for the nation, as the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has shown, and it can serve as a check on the left’s worst excesses. But today the Republican Party is hardly a healthy conservative party. In fact, it has grown inhospitable to authentic conservatism, and certainly to conservative sensibilities. What we are seeing instead more closely resembles what Ziblatt refers to as a “ferocious right-wing populist politics, which threatens to swallow older, self-identified conservative political parties.”
The temptation for conservatives post-Trump is to train all their fire on the left and on the Biden administration while hoping the Republican Party will self-correct. This is an understandable hope, but it’s misplaced. Conservatives should certainly hold the Biden administration and the left accountable. They should criticize and resist policies and claims they believe are harmful to the public good—withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, government overreach, efforts to pack the court and undermine religious liberties, and Democratic lawmakers who say, “I am done with those who condone government funded murder. No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”
But acknowledge, too, that right now the Republican Party is a grave threat to American democracy—not the only one, of course, but a grave one—and unless and until Republicans summon the wit and the will to salvage the party, ruin will follow.
The best thing those who love the Republican Party can do for it is to speak the truth about it. In doing so, they might hold close to their heart a phrase from the great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.