Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Former President Donald Trump might get out-Trumped. As the campaign season accelerates, Trump has thrown his weight behind several Republican candidates. The point is not only to shape the electoral playing field but to offer clear evidence he still calls the shots within the GOP if he ends up running for reelection in 2024.
Thus far, his endorsements have had mixed results. His biggest victory took place in Ohio, where J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” shed any hopes of reinventing the Republican establishment of yore and went all in with Trumpism. He defeated Josh Mandel in the GOP primary and emerged as a shining example of what team Mar-a-Lago can deliver. In West Virginia, Trump’s pick Rep. Alex Mooney won the primary while in Nebraska, Charles Herbster, his favorite in the gubernatorial race, lost to Jim Pillen.
But now something unexpected is happening in Pennsylvania, where Trump endorsed the television doctor Mehmet Oz. The alliance seemed perfect; two TV stars teaming up to try to win a US Senate seat in one of the most critical swing states. Oz, who had the ability to attract more moderate voters due to name recognition and lack of political baggage, would also have the Trumpian wind behind his back.
But the plan is running into a problem. Kathy Barnette, a hard-right candidate who is one of seven contenders in the state’s Republican Senate primary, is polling right alongside Oz and former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, despite a much smaller war chest.
Barnette, who has delved into the Trumpian political world view with relish, has made numerous anti-gay and anti-Muslim comments. In 2015, she said it was OK to discriminate against Muslims and compared rejecting Islam to “rejecting Hitler’s or Stalin’s worldviews.” She has also said, “Two men sleeping together, two men holding hands, two men caressing, that is not normal.”
Barnette has won the support of major conservative organizations such as the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that sees in the Black conservative Republican a bright star for the party. When Barnette lost the race to represent Pennsylvania’s 4th district by 19 percentage points in 2020, she refused to concede, and still hasn’t. She used that loss to stoke baseless claims of voter fraud, gaining enough steam to attract figures on the right like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
“The reason she has struck a chord is she NEVER conceded her House race loss,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told Axios, “Pennsylvania is MAGA v. ULTRA MAGA.” It’s clear here, Barnette is ultra.
In other words, at least in Pennsylvania, a new generation of radical Republicans has emerged to take on the former president and his allies. While Barnette could very well lose to Oz or McCormick, her unexpected rise shows the direction the Republican Party is moving in.
The story is certainly a twist, but it is not surprising. This is a phenomenon that has shaped the conservative movement since the 1970s. With each generation, a new brand of right-wing firebrand has emerged to define the moment, only to find themselves cast aside by up-and-comers who embrace an even more extreme form of smash-mouth partisanship and right-wing ideological worldview. This has been the story of a party that keeps moving further right, with centrists generally failing to rein in the GOP (with notable exceptions like George H.W. Bush).
The Republican Party reset to center after right-wing Sen. Barry Goldwater’s devastating landslide defeat to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But ever since Ronald Reagan’s historic presidential victory against President Jimmy Carter in 1980, the GOP has been on a steady rightward trajectory. Starting with his inauguration in 1981, Reagan mainstreamed right-wing conservative ideas in a way that few others had been able to achieve.
He would go on to find a congressional counterpart with Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, who pioneered a no-guardrails approach to partisan warfare, establishing a new template for what was permissible to say or do in pursuit of political power.
His influence is undeniable. A cohort of representatives who served in the House after 1978, the year Gingrich was first elected to the lower chamber, would go on to win Senate seats in the ensuing decades, becoming “The Gingrich Senators,” as the political scientist Sean Theriault called them. The senators, having come up alongside Gingrich, are more conservative and willing to engage in obstruction, Theriault argues. Gingrich, of course, eventually became Speaker of the House when Republicans took over the chamber in 1995.
But the 1980s generation of conservatism eventually gave way to young up-and-comers. In the 2008 election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, an unknown governor from Alaska at the time, lit up the campaign trail by blasting the media and holding campaign rallies sending her supporters into a total frenzy. It wasn’t unusual to hear people accusing the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, of being a “terrorist” and playing into the worst racial tropes.
Palin and her allies dismissed President George W. Bush’s staunch Reagan conservatism – which centered around fighting for tax cuts, dismissing climate change science and flexing military force overseas after 9/11 – as a “big government v.” Unlike Bush, who was part of a political dynasty, Palin presented herself in stark contrast as an everywoman positioned outside the federal political machine.
Though the McCain-Palin ticket went down in defeat, the Tea Party came to town in the 2010 midterms and took up what can only be described as Gingrich-style politics on steroids. During their first year in office, the new members of Congress seriously threatened to send the federal government into default by refusing to raise the federal debt ceiling if President Obama didn’t concede to draconian budget cuts. Tea Party Republicans delved into Birtherism and demonstrated how the conservative media could serve as a powerful platform for political propaganda and disinformation.
They also turned on Republican Speaker John Boehner, who had once been a Gingrich ally and Republican renegade himself, dismissing him as too much of a compromising insider. Boehner, who had helped Tea Party candidates in the midterms, would later be extremely critical of their politics, calling Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan a “legislative terrorist.” In the Senate, Mitch McConnell showed how far the party was willing to go when he refused to even consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016.
The Tea Party eventually morphed into the Freedom Caucus and became the most powerful force on the Hill. After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, many of them, such as Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows, found themselves inside the administration. But President Trump took things even further than they could have imagined. He took to Twitter, blasting his opponents and spreading blatant falsehoods without any restraint. He disrupted the traditional processes of governance and ignored norms as well as procedures, doing whatever was necessary to pursue his agenda.
Nothing would compare to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and to spread the “Big Lie” with so much force that it has become the equivalent of what anti-communism had been to the conservative movement in the 1980s.
So it should come as no shock that in 2022, we are seeing a crop of candidates who will start to cast the former president as tame. They will eventually blame him for being too comfortable with the status quo and uninterested in shaking up the political “establishment.”
While Democrats keep coming back to their center with politicians such as President Biden or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Republicans are continuing to go all in with the newest crop of extremists. The dynamic is almost inevitable as this is the history of the modern GOP.
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