The Trump 'cult' is driving away Republican lawmakers

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One state lawmaker described the Jan. 6 Capitol riots as 'the final straw.'

Across the country, more and more lawmakers are leaving the Republican Party — and Donald Trump is largely to blame.

On Thursday, Arkansas state Sen. Jim Hendren announced his departure from the GOP, citing the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead, as "the final straw."

"I've watched a systemic change at the core of our politics that emboldens our worst impulses, the most extreme thinking, disables policy-making, and hurts all of us. ... I watched the encouragement of the worst voices of racism, nationalism, and violence," Hendren said in a statement.

The Capitol riots, carried out by pro-Trump extremists, were famously spurred on by Trump himself, who had provoked a crowd of supporters to march on the building to "take back" the country, saying they would never do so with "weakness." Inside, lawmakers were voting to certify the 2020 Electoral College results for President Joe Biden, an effort marred by pushback from Republicans trying to undermine vote counts in predominantly Black regions of the country. The rioters eventually stormed their way inside, threatening to execute members of Congress, including then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was overseeing Senate business that day.

The Republican Party was already losing officials for years during the Trump administration, but the trickle has grown to a steady exodus since the November election, and particularly after the Jan. 6 riots.

On Feb. 2, a well-known Oregon Republican, Knute Buehler, said he was leaving the party, telling local affiliate KGW, "I don't know what the Republican Party stands for," adding, "It's almost become a cult of personality."

A day prior, dozens of Republican officials who served in former President George W. Bush's administration left the party, citing frustration with lawmakers still loyal to Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, Reuters reported. Jimmy Gurulé, a former Bush administration official, told the wire service, "The Republican Party as I knew it no longer exists. I’d call it the cult of Trump."

In Oklahoma in January, former congressman Mickey Edwards, 83, a lifelong Republican, said he would be leaving the party, telling local affiliate KFOR, "It’s gone. I mean there is no Republican Party anymore that has values, principles, morals, anything."

"This has become a cult. It's no longer a political party. It's a cult," he added. "It's the kind of a cult that when the leader of the cult does anything, no matter what it is, or how awful it is, they [support them]," he said, specifically slamming Republicans who "voted to question the election results even after people came into the Capitol."

Shortly after the November election, Michigan state Rep. Paul Mitchell also announced on Twitter that he was "disaffiliating" from the party, noting that Trump's refusal to concede after losing to Biden was "unacceptable." Mitchell said he "fear[s] long-term harm to our democracy," after Republican leaders enabled Trump's baseless conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud, which Trump's own officials later debunked.

The trend follows that of Republican voters, who are also leaving the party in droves. A February New York Times analysis found that nearly 140,000 Republicans in 25 states had quit the GOP in the month of January alone, with a surge following the Jan. 6 riots.

The Republican exodus signals a larger problem for GOP lawmakers caught in the precarious position of juggling those who disavow Trump, his fervent supporters, and those stuck in the middle.

Political analysts told Reuters that many Republicans who fled the party were from left-leaning counties in big cities, suggesting that moderate Republicans could be influencing their exodus. Their departure pushes the party further pro-Trump, the wire service noted.

"If these voters are leaving the party permanently, it’s really bad news for Republicans," Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina told Reuters, adding that it will make it more challenging for Republicans to defeat Democrats in upcoming elections.

David Barker, professor of government at American University, echoed that sentiment, telling the American Independent Foundation that the split "means the GOP is going to be less competitive at the national level."

"As long as they remain in Trump’s grip, they will lose presidential elections," Barker said. He added that the Republican Party risked severe political consequences unless it decided to "change course" quickly.

UCLA public policy professor Mark A. Peterson said in an email that the trend was a sure departure from the norm, but added that it was worth watching "what happens over time" to determine whether it was a longterm one.

He noted continued attention on Trump's failures in office might "reduce his hold on voters in the constituencies of the Republican officials who are currently trying to succeed [him]."

Many GOP officials are still standing by Trump, trying desperately not to alienate his lingering base.

A Monmouth University poll published on Jan. 25 showed many Republican voters still support Trump, with 85% saying they didn't believe Trump's actions were worthy of conviction in his second impeachment trial for inciting an insurrection. (He was ultimately acquitted on Feb. 13.)

However, a majority of Americans approved of Trump's impeachment.

The complication for GOP lawmakers, then, appears to be the divide between Trump's popularity with his supporters and those fleeing the party post-election.

Barker acknowledged that "the party is splitting," but estimated that fewer than 10% of Republican lawmakers overall were disavowing Trump — while at least three-quarters of GOP voters were sticking with him.

Jesse Lee, vice president of communications at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, gave a similar estimate, adding in an email that, "for the 10% or so of Republicans who want to actually take their party back, they feel they have no place to go, and the sort of peer pressure is overwhelming."

"The problem the GOP faces is now is the problem they faced in 2018," he said. "They've become entirely dependent on the Trump base, but when he’s not on the ballot, that base doesn't care to turn out nearly as much."

Of lawmakers' struggle to get out the vote without a Trump ticket, he added, "They are so beholden and so bereft of any other ideas or identity that they have nothing else to affirmatively motivate their side."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.