The hardest task in politics is not to face down your official opponents on the other side of the parliamentary aisle. This comes naturally and is really a matter of political DNA. What requires real political steel is staring down your own supporters when you are charting a different course to that to which your base is wedded. Think Richard Nixon and China in 1972.
However, the classic example involves Bill Clinton running for president in 1992. African-Americans are usually considered an important part of the base of the Democratic Party and Clinton had enjoyed considerable support from this critical constituency as governor of Arkansas. But he faced a serious distraction in his run for the White House against president George HW Bush.
A black rapper in New York City who went by the name of Sister Souljah made inflammatory remarks about racial tensions in America, saying: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people.” Clinton rebuked her and, while he earned the ire of some, most Americans respected the fact he had demonstrated both judgment and courage.
There are examples of this kind of courage in Australian politics, ranging from Bob Hawke and Paul Keating on liberalising the Australian economy to John Howard on gun control in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. People broadly recognise real leadership when they witness it and note that there are few things more painful than confronting your own supporters.
On the other side of the coin, failure to demonstrate leadership during critical challenges makes some of your own supporters very uneasy and, at the extreme, the unscrupulous will seek to take advantage. This is the dilemma confronting the US Republican Party in the wake of an abject failure to disown Donald Trump’s dishonest and destructive claims that he won the presidential election in a landslide, only to have it stolen by anyone from the Democratic Party to the media to the Deep State. You may insert your own villain at this point to explain Trump’s self-serving bellowing.
Trump now threatens retribution against his critics and it is expected at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando Florida on Monday AEDT to claim presumptive ownership of the Republican nomination for president for 2024. Should this occur it may well be shadow boxing because Trump needs the continuing financial support of his faithful. But the dangers for the Republican Party will have become acute.
Frank Luntz, the respected Republican pollster, now estimates that 46 per cent of Republican voters are prepared to join a new Trump party. Do the math. If half the Republicans split and align with Trump, or a Trump nominee, then neither the Republicans, nor Trump, can win a general election. American elections for the presidency from 1860 through 1912 to 1968 and 1992 have been determined by splits in one of the major parties.
All this is a direct consequence of the Republicans humouring Trump for far too long. Once Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, the writing was on the wall. Trump was defeated by an electoral college margin of 306 to 232, which was precisely the same result as Trump achieved over Hillary Clinton four years earlier. But instead of behaving as mature citizens in a great democracy like the Bush family or Senator Mitt Romney (Republican, Utah), senior Republicans chose to cower in the face of Trump’s rage and endorse a series of failed challenges and even more extraordinary and bizarre allegations of fraud. If you leave your future in the hands of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, then you are over.
It need not have been this way. A comprehensive break with Trump post-Charlottesville may have avoided a series of Republican defeats that are already on the record. In 2018, the Republicans went backwards in the midterm elections and, while this is routine for the governing party, losses the following year in gubernatorial races by Trump nominees, including in the rich red state of Kentucky, were exceptional. In 2020, Trump lost the presidency comprehensively and in 2021, courtesy of the two Georgia Senate run-off races, the Senate fell to the Democrats.
So, the Republicans will be best placed to stare down Donald Trump right now. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) did this in a half-hearted way, while failing to convict Trump in the Senate trial. But a handful of Republicans stared down the 45th president in both the House and Senate, and it will be fascinating to see how they fare against Trumpeteer challengers.
Robust Republicans such as congresswoman Liz Cheney in Wyoming may well survive and once Trump starts losing primaries and elections, his populist appeal fades and fails. However, disturbingly, most Republican voters are telling pollsters that either Antifa inspired the domestic terrorism at the US Capitol on January 6 or a minority of Trumpeteers were involved in the riot.
Tellingly, some 4 per cent of Republican voters do regard the Capitol invasion as insurrection, but the failure by the Republican establishment to denounce Trump for what happened and instead to stand mute while a deluded conspiracy theory is offered by Senator Ron Johnson (Republican, Wisconsin) is troubling. Johnson maintains that agents provocateurs, appearing to be MAGA supporters, were responsible for the violence. Such absurdity leads inevitably to the lunatics running the asylum, regardless of whether or not they are wearing horns.
Kim Beazley used to joke that in the ALP we should thank the good Lord for protecting us from our supporters. Whimsical to be sure, but just a hint of truth in the observation. To stay balanced, political parties have to hold tight to realities. When their own constituencies run off the rails, they need to be called out promptly and forcefully. In other words, the US Republicans need their own version of a Sister Souljah moment right now.