It's still Trump's GOP
SAM SANDERS, HOST:
Hey, y'all, you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. It has been over a year since the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol, almost a year since former President Donald Trump left office. A lot has clearly changed, but some things have not.
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DONALD TRUMP: Lunatic leftists are taking over our schools, and radical socialists are taking over our country, and we're not going to let that happen. We're not going to let that happen. Hillary conceded. I never conceded - never.
SANDERS: Donald Trump is still holding rallies. He is still making endorsements.
MCKAY COPPINS: He's like part kingmaker, part king in exile. I'll put it this way - I think that the Republican Party is shaped more by Donald Trump putting out statements and making endorsements from Mar-a-Lago than pretty much anything that's happening in the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington.
SANDERS: That's McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. I called him up to talk about where the GOP and Trump stand now. And I also brought on one of McKay's colleagues, Vann R. Newkirk II. He's a senior editor for The Atlantic, and he's also been covering this stuff for a while. I had so many questions for both of them about the state of the GOP. But my first question was why does Donald Trump have so much staying power?
COPPINS: I was looking back at, you know, January 6, and it felt like there was this very brief moment in the wake of Trump's defeat when the party could have decisively broken with him, right? You had like...
SANDERS: And they almost did for a day or two, right?
SANDERS: Like, Mitch McConnell was like, this is bad.
VANN R NEWKIRK II: For a little bit.
COPPINS: It seemed like - I mean, they didn't - you know, it wasn't like a full repudiation of Trump and his presidency, but there was, like, a moment where it seemed like the Mitch McConnells of the world were just totally sick of dealing with him. And he had just lost not only the White House but was, you know, partly responsible, at least, for the Republicans losing the House and, you know, would eventually lose the Senate. And it felt like the party and the kind of Republican-aligned media outlets could have gotten together and decided we're moving on from this guy. And that just did not happen.
SANDERS: I saw the same thing happen, but I kept saying why? The GOP never has any shortage of people who want to run for president. They never have any shortage of charismatic politicians. They could have easily said, all right, the next guy is Ted Cruz or whoever. They didn't do that. Why?
COPPINS: I think it's even weirder because look at the last time the Republicans suffered this kind of electoral wipeout, and it was in 2012 when they lost the presidential race and they lost, you know, up and down the ticket across the country. And what happened then was kind of the normal thing that happens when a party loses an election, which is there was this period of widespread recriminations and soul searching and people jockeying to be the next guy.
SANDERS: The tail goes between the legs. You sit quietly for a while.
COPPINS: Exactly. You know, Mitt Romney kind of did the, like, respectable, you know, presidential loser thing and, like, kind of laid low for a while, and everybody took turns, like, piling on and saying what they thought the party needed to become to win in the future. And that didn't happen. And part of the reason is because Donald Trump had so successfully laid the groundwork in the run-up to this election that with this narrative that whether or not he actually won, he really won. And the leaders of the Republican Party, as it turned out, by and large, were not willing to challenge that narrative.
SANDERS: Vann, how much does that surprise you, the chokehold that Trump still has on his party, even as he is, as McKay said, part king in exile?
NEWKIRK: It doesn't surprise me at all. I think if you look at what happened over the last four or five years, the tactics that they put in place in terms of bullying people in terms of being that kingmaker in terms of fostering real movement on the ground, that's what's paying off today for them. So you look at how the party operates now, it's not Trump being on the outside pulling the party in his direction. He actually is kind of sitting in the middle, almost, as people who became empowered during his presidency go further.
SANDERS: Well - and that's what I want to ask you both about because as much as the GOP still seems like Donald Trump's party, there are some very clear areas where it's almost left him behind and moved even further from where he was. Perhaps the biggest example of that is the dialogue around vaccines on the right. Donald Trump has been outspoken amongst the GOP faithful and still preaching the good about vaccines, urging folks to get boosters. And he's been booed by some of his own fans for saying that.
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TRUMP: Take the vaccines. I did it. It's good. Take the vaccines. But you got - no, that's OK. That's all right. You got your freedoms.
SANDERS: How much of that shift is a real thing? Like, the party's still kind of following Trump but in some ways getting even more fringe than Trump himself.
NEWKIRK: Well, from a science perspective, you look at what happened with vaccines. We, as a country, as a world, achieved a scientific breakthrough that, you know, we're going to look back in time and think of as something akin to - I don't know - the space race. And it happened with funding that he approved.
SANDERS: Trump helped do that.
NEWKIRK: He did.
SANDERS: Like, Trump got stuff together to push for those vaccines very quickly.
NEWKIRK: And there is no way - there is not a snowball's chance that this guy is not going to take credit for that. Almost at the outset kind of put him at odds with lots of elements of the party. I think, even from the beginning, you could see the vaccine hesitancy. You could see the anti-vax messages. They were coming out as he was promoting vaccines as president. So that's not really surprising now, but, you know, it does place him not as a vanguard anymore in the party.
COPPINS: But what I would say, though, that's funny about that is that, like, this is kind of the story of the Republican Party for the last, like, 20 years, which is - and maybe even longer - which is that the leaders of the Republican Party will kind of flirt with or enable or, you know, allow some kind of fringe element in their party to operate unchallenged, right? But, you know, what always happens in the Republican Party is that these leaders will kind of flirt with this fringe element and then the fringe element gets way bigger and way more aggressive and, in some respects, sort of takes over the party and then leaders kind of realize that they don't have control over it anymore. They can't harness it for their own purposes.
SANDERS: Save for the vaccines, are there other areas where the current GOP has also moved away from Trump and gone further right.
COPPINS: You know, I guess, like, one thing that I've been watching with some interest is the rise of what is called the national conservatism, which is basically the nationalist movement that Trump helped launch. So it's kind of this right-wing ideological movement that is sort of Trumpism minus Trump. And I think that when Trump ran for president in 2016, he talked a big game about these kind of economic populist ideas that he was going to impose. And then in a lot of ways, once he became president, he sort of governed like an old-school, you know, fiscal conservative with, you know, big corporate tax breaks and deregulation and things like that. I'm interested to see how much that movement gains traction in the Republican Party and whether it goes even further than Trump did as president.
NEWKIRK: And I think if you look at - you know, we're thinking about democracy, obviously, and Trump has had and endorsed a lot of things that are - essentially would rule out democracy. But it's clear that from his endorsement of, say, the Voter Fraud Commission to his challenge of the 2020 election, all that was self-interest, right? He used whatever argument he could that would give him any chance or would give him an electoral advantage. What you see now on the right is people who are taking up those arguments and putting them into an actual coherent political theory. And you have people who are not just, you know, in service of electing a Republican president who are putting it out in their grassroots organizing and work, things like, you know, the disdain for popular sovereignty generally. And I think you have to distinguish their movement, their energy from his, which was - you know, there was not necessarily a guiding principle to anything Trump did with the elections aside from Trump needs to win. And now you've got...
SANDERS: An actual philosophy.
NEWKIRK: A group of folks who are, by nature, skeptical of mass democracy. And I think they are moving things forward at a state level that we haven't really taken a whole lot of notice of that are really going to affect elections in 2022 and 2024.
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SANDERS: Coming up - how the GOP has gone local. Stick around.
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SANDERS: One big development since Trump has left office, at least in the GOP, is how a lot of that conservative and far-right energy has gone local. There's been a groundswell of energy on the right for the last several months to get a foothold in local and county politics across the country and to be in positions of power locally to potentially, they think, decide an election in 2024. Can you tell us what's going on there and when it started?
NEWKIRK: So, I mean, you just said 2024, but our first test is going to be 2022. So we've got a couple things happening. Obviously, states put out their new congressional maps after the last round of redistricting and the new census. And there are some pretty heavy, pretty durable Republican-favoring gerrymanders that all but ensure some level of advantage going into 2022. So that's one thing. And that was done kind of hand in hand with efforts that were taken right after the 2020 election by Republican state and local officials to give them much more power over elections laws going forward. So now lots of states have passed laws that give elections officials more authority to overturn results or to challenge results. A lot of these small tweaks of where polling places are, of how local ballot access laws work, of how and where you can give water to people at the polls, how you can provide language assistance to people or can't - those things, we're going to get a real test run of them.
NEWKIRK: And I guess the concern for Democrats is, you know, that test run is going to put people in office.
SANDERS: Totally. So, McKay, I want to talk about where this newest push to go local started. I mean, historically, the GOP has always been better on local politics. They understand the power of it, and they take it seriously in a way that Democrats often do not. But I've read some reporting that this newest push to go local comes from Steve Bannon, former aide and strategist to Donald Trump. He has endorsed what's called the, quote-unquote, "precinct strategy" on his podcast. Do all roads in this regard lead back to Bannon, at least right now?
COPPINS: Well, Steve Bannon would certainly probably want us to believe that.
COPPINS: He is kind of a master of taking credit for the dark arts of Trumpian politics. That said, I think that Bannon and other Trump allies, Trump-aligned strategists, have really honed in on this idea that the way for the Republican Party to take over politics to win is not necessarily in winning over the most voters, right? It's not a 51% strategy. It's a let's-take-control-of-the-system-that-oversees-elections strategy.
You've seen this in Virginia, where I live. Last year, a - somebody who worked on Trump's legal team to try to overturn the 2020 election mounted a primary challenge against a Republican state House member and actually won to join the state legislature. In Georgia, you have somebody who is running against the current secretary of state, making this stolen election lie central to their campaign. And so basically what you see is that Trump allies are trying to install themselves in positions where they can oversee the next presidential election. The fear is that having people like this, who believe that the 2020 election is stolen and are willing to overturn an election result, now putting themselves in charge of the next election is something that should worry people on both sides of the aisle who care about democracy.
SANDERS: I want to get really granular for a second and just unpack what a, quote-unquote, "overturning" would look like. One, could it ever work? Could there ever be enough people to take over enough local seats to nullify an actual winner of an election? But if so, like, what does it look like, and what are these folks on the ground planning to do?
NEWKIRK: It's a big question. And I often feel like, when I brainstorm this - I don't want to, like, put out a roadmap of things I've been thinking...
COPPINS: (Laughter) You don't want to give ideas to...
NEWKIRK: Yeah. Yeah.
COPPINS: ...A future coup?
SANDERS: Vann, McKay, I will surprise you by saying this, but those folks are not listening to this podcast.
SANDERS: They're not.
NEWKIRK: OK, I get it. I get it. But I think the thing that you have to realize about elections, and the thing that Trump's folks were very good at realizing about elections, is we just do not have a lot of real laws that guide and bind our elections. And also...
SANDERS: Well, that was by design, right?
NEWKIRK: By design, right.
SANDERS: Like, the one thing that I can still recall from, like, con law is, like, it's supposed to be decentralized. States and counties are in charge of their own stuff. And that would - seemed to be a benefit and the point for a very long time.
NEWKIRK: Yeah. And a lot of the things that we think of as popular democracy were kind of grafted on to the old frame, which - you know, we did have state legislatures almost in every state - controlled who was sent to Congress, right? So - and controlled a lot of the sort of things that we pass off to voters now. And a lot of these, you know, laws allowing certain people to vote, they didn't overturn existing systems that gave a legislature a right to overturn or pick who it wanted to send us electors to - for the president. And also, you don't really need a whole lot - you don't need a critical mass of people in every state to overturn an election. You just need the right people in the right states. Yeah.
COPPINS: I mean, just consider the example of Georgia in 2020, right? Let's say that the secretary of state in Georgia, a Republican, had, instead of pushing back against and rejecting Donald Trump's efforts to get him to throw out Biden votes or find new Trump votes - instead of that, he was somebody who was more amenable to going along with that. You only need a handful of secretaries of state in closely contested battleground states to swing a close presidential election, right?
You could say the same thing for state legislatures. State legislatures in a lot of states have a huge role in the administration and certification of election results in certain states. And so if you have the right people, or wrong people depending on your view here, installed in a state legislature in a given battleground state, they could wreak a lot of havoc on elections. And so - and this is - we're not even getting into, you know, the judicial possibilities where a judge could decide to throw out a bunch of votes on some technicality or go along with a more narrow interpretation of who should be allowed to vote or whatever. I mean, we saw a ton of these lawsuits, legal challenges, play out in 2020. Like Vann said, this isn't a case where you need hundreds of people installed in the right jobs, which would, I agree, be kind of an unlikely result. You just need a few people in a few battleground states willing to essentially subvert the will of their voters. And you could have an election overturned.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What are these GOP supporters who are currently going local and seeking to occupy these local election spots, what are they saying or doing so far?
COPPINS: On the one hand, there have been - and Vann has reported on this - there's been a lot of movement on restricting voter access - right? - voter ID laws and other efforts to essentially make it more difficult for likely Democratic voters to vote. But in terms of actually tampering with, you know, election results, I don't think we've seen that much happen because we haven't seen that many elections since 2020 and since these people have taken power. I do agree with Vann, though, that the midterm elections are going to be a huge test case for this.
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SANDERS: Up next, how voting protections are being eroded all across the country. Stay with us.
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SANDERS: So we can't talk about the breakdown of voting rights in this country without talking about a Supreme Court case that was decided almost a decade ago. Vann, can you tell our listeners what happened there and why we're still seeing the effects of that ruling today?
NEWKIRK: Yeah. So, I mean, I'm the Shelby County guy, and I cannot get through a conversation without talking about Shelby County.
NEWKIRK: But obviously, in 2013, Shelby County vs. Holder essentially got rid of one of the most important voting rights enforcement arms that the federal government has. Since 1965 or a little bit after 1965, there has been a rule in place that allows the federal government to have pre-emptive oversight of districts and of states that have proven to be problematic, we'll say.
SANDERS: Yeah. So it's called pre-clearance.
NEWKIRK: Yeah, preclearance, right?
SANDERS: Basically, they're saying because these states in these areas in the country have a history of not doing right by marginalized voters, we have to preclear all of your election laws and make sure it's kosher before you can do it. But in 2013, with the Shelby case, that went away, right?
NEWKIRK: Right. And so basically the only way for you to challenge anything, whether it's an unfairly cited polling place or a voter ID law that comes out and says, all right, you know, Black folks can't vote, the only way for you to challenge that is to go to court. And oftentimes, the only way for you to challenge that is to go to court after the law has had some effect on voting.
SANDERS: And you're going to courts that have been packed for a few years now by the GOP with conservative judges.
NEWKIRK: Exactly. So essentially, we went overnight in 2013 from a setup where we had some real backstops for people against bad actors to now where it's kind of the Wild West. And it's been that way for almost a decade.
SANDERS: Speaking of this wild, wild west idea, like, is what happened with Shelby, is what happened with SCOTUS and the Voting Rights Act a thing that happened kind of separate and apart from the GOP? Or was all of that machination part of the GOP strategy as well?
NEWKIRK: I think you take it all together. I think you look at agitation against the Voting Rights Act, that's been a conservative-organizing principle for 50 years. The reason why Shelby County even challenged was part of a series of challenges designed to eventually overturn the VRA. It's actually - a lot of experts would say it's a wonder that it lasted that long. And you look at the other part of the VRA, you look at Section 2, which is the part that allows people to sue on their own, there's a lot of experts who don't think that one's long for the world, either. And conservatives have been organizing to get rid of Section 2 for a very long time.
SANDERS: So then we have a GOP, as you both have laid out, that is getting really good at going local to possibly influence the midterms and 2024 on the ground. They are also successfully pursuing voting laws that would probably restrict voting access for people who vote Democratic. What are Democrats doing, if anything, if all of this happens on the other side?
NEWKIRK: That's the question.
COPPINS: (Laughter) Yeah. Note both of our silence. I mean, obviously, Democrats are working on this, but, you know, Democrats on...
SANDERS: You say, obviously, but are they?
COPPINS: Well, so - there - they - some Democrats are working on it more enthusiastically than others, right? Right now on Capitol Hill, Democrats are trying to work out a piece of legislation that aims to protect voting rights. The likelihood of that passing, I think, is an open question. Vann, do you have a good sense of where the state of play is on that bill right now?
NEWKIRK: It looks like there's a little more daylight for it than there was a couple weeks ago. I saw a statement from Senator Schumer that was more forceful than I've seen by leadership in a while and seemed to back what I believe is a developing plan among Democrats to favor rule changes similar to what we call budget reconciliation, expressly for voting rights laws that would allow them to get around the filibuster. But where the rubber meets the road is if you do believe this to be a part of the gravest threat to democracy that America has seen in quite some time and you go out there and you sell this voting rights bill as being part of the antidote to that and then you can't get it out of committee, what's that say about the party?
SANDERS: While you control both chambers - also it's just - yeah, it's like, what's going on there?
COPPINS: And this has been a line of criticism for a while of Democrats and President Biden, you know, that we've seen, which is that, like, you're talking about this as a crisis of democracy, that you see this rhetoric in a lot of their speeches and their statements and their tweets. But are you treating it like a true crisis of democracy, right? If democracy really hangs in the balance, then shouldn't this be the absolute top priority? Some Democrats, I think, are treating it like a genuine crisis; not everyone is. And there are a lot of, you know, crises to deal with right now, and that's part of the reason. But, you know, I think that it's hard to instill the sense of urgency that you need to get a major piece of legislation pushed through like this unless there's a broad consensus that this is actually a crisis.
SANDERS: What has surprised you both the most in where the GOP has headed since Donald Trump left the White House?
COPPINS: I'm not surprised that there hasn't been some kind of mass, you know, cathartic denunciation of Donald Trump, right? There hasn't been the scene that would be in the Aaron Sorkin movie where Donald Trump has been repudiated by Republican leaders. That hasn't happened, and I'm not surprised that hasn't happened. I'm a little surprised that the huge cast of Republicans who want to be president and are planning to run for president in 2024 haven't found more ways to undermine Trump or move their voters past him because the way that things stand now, if Donald Trump decides to run for president again in 2024, he's probably going to win the nomination again. And that - you know, talk to Republican - prospective Republican presidential candidates behind the scenes off the record and that's a nightmare scenario for all of them. But I haven't seen any kind of action at any level from anyone in the party to try to, you know, sideline him or move the party beyond him. And I'm a little surprised that hasn't started.
SANDERS: OK. Vann, same question to you.
NEWKIRK: Well, I think I'd say I'm surprised that they haven't taken some things further, especially when talking about measures to curtail democracy or whatever, whatever. I think there are - the lesson of the last couple years has been kind of that might makes right and that you can make up your own laws. And they've actually seemed to be a little more reluctant than I expected to make up their own laws, in some cases. And I think maybe that's just somewhat being chastened after the last year and losing some steam with the pandemic. But actually, to me, the lesson has been that the floor is kind of wide open for that kind of strategy, and if they want it, they can kind of have it.
SANDERS: We're going to leave it there. Vann, McKay, thank you both so much for this chat. I learned a lot, and I'm sure our listeners did as well. Listeners, check out their reporting over at theatlantic.com.
COPPINS: Thanks, Sam.
SANDERS: Thanks again to my guests, Vann R. Newkirk II, senior editor at The Atlantic, and McKay Coppins, staff writer at The Atlantic. And, listeners, if you want to hear more about where we are one year after the insurrection, we have another episode for you from this past Friday. I was joined by two journalists to break down what exactly happened that day and if it might happen again. That is the latest episode in your feed, wherever you get your podcasts.
All right. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Liam McBain and edited by Jordana Hochman. Listeners, come back here for more IT'S BEEN A MINUTE on Friday. For that episode, we want to hear from you sharing the best part of your week. Just record yourself and email that file to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. All right, till Friday, be good to yourselves. Thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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