There they go again.
That locution is one of the great spontaneous remarks from perhaps the greatest Republican of modern times. Ronald Reagan uttered it in a presidential debate almost 45 years ago – and it applies perfectly to the heirs to his political legacy.
There the Republicans go again, tearing each other down and tearing each other apart, a ritual they began in 1912, repeated in 1952, refined in 1964, elevated to an art form in 1976 and are transforming into a destructive pastime in 2021. There have been so many battles for the soul of the Republican Party that together they might be regarded as another Hundred Years’ War – except for the fact that they have been going on for even longer than that.
So now, in Year 129 of the GOP civil war, it is Donald J. Trump against his one-time Capitol Hill playmaker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the former president against all those who voted to impeach him in the House or convict him in the Senate. And Mr. Trump against anyone he considers an apostate or what another former conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher of Britain, once described as a “wet.”
The party is drenched in controversy, bitterly divided as it seeks redemption in a country that is itself rancorously divided. That situation is all the more perilous because the fault line in the party is a single individual, Mr. Trump – much as it was in 1912 (Theodore Roosevelt, taking on incumbent president William Howard Taft) and 1976 (Mr. Reagan, challenging Gerald Ford).
“Part of the cunning of Donald Trump is that he is creating a situation where any diversion from him casts that Republican into the outer darkness and part of the great conspiracy against him,” said Rick Perlstein, author of a four-volume chronicle of modern American conservatism. “It will be very hard for Republicans to thread that needle.”
There is great irony in this current intraparty fight, because the divisions fly in the face of one of the iron laws of U.S. politics, which fixes the Republicans as the peaceable “adults” versus the undisciplined Democrats.
And yet these American avatars of the establishment are from time to time adversaries of the establishment. These American symbols of stability are often pugilists in political upheaval. These American archetypes of steady habits have made a habit of battling each other.
And so, as they go at it again, the future of the party, and by extension the future of U.S. politics, is once again at stake, even as both are being redefined.
“I don’t think this gets resolved easily,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College expert on the Republican Party who left the GOP after Mr. Trump was nominated in 2016. “There’s nothing about this that is good for the Republicans. The only question is how bad it gets – is it a temporary infection or existential threat?”
This battle is being fought on several fronts, from Mar-a-Lago to Capitol Hill to the conservative-oriented opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, where Mr. McConnell, who voted to acquit Mr. Trump, wrote the other day that the former president’s supporters “stormed the Capitol because of the falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone,” and where former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a Trump appointee as ambassador to the United Nations and a possible 2024 presidential candidate, argued, “Most of Mr. Trump’s major policies were outstanding and made America stronger, safer and more prosperous. Many of his actions since the election were wrong and will be judged harshly by history.”
The stakes are, as Mr. Trump would put it, huge.
With a Senate divided 50-50, every midterm race next year is critical, especially in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia – all states Mr. Trump lost. The party has hopes in Nevada and New Hampshire, but Mr. Trump was defeated in those states as well.
Republican political professionals generally fear party divisions and primary fights because they distract from the battle against the Democrats, siphon off money that otherwise would be used in the general election and leave the winner bloodied.
A preview of the Republican smash-up might come later this year if Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom of California is recalled and Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican and former San Diego mayor, faces businessman John Cox, who is closely aligned with Mr. Trump, for the office.
And yet these GOP divisions do not necessarily portend disaster.
The Republicans fought in 1952, when the conservative Robert Taft wing of the party squared off against the more moderate Dwight Eisenhower strain. They did so again a dozen years later with savage bloodletting between the conservative Barry Goldwater and the liberal Nelson Rockefeller.
“The GOP has periodically torn itself apart,’' said Richard Norton Smith, who wrote about the 1964 battle in his landmark Rockefeller biography, “only to come together when faced with the spectre of permanent opposition or worse.”
Meanwhile, the only safe prophecy comes from the 1982 American film classic Rocky III, when boxer Clubber Lang, about to face Rocky Balboa in the ring, is asked for a prediction. He snarls an unforgettable one-word answer: “Pain.”