E Pluribus, None? A Recent History of the Republican Party

Ellen Jordan ’26 in Opinions | October 27, 2023

          Head hung low, Jim Jordan exited the House of Representatives in defeat for the final time on October 21. His attempt to succeed Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker had been vanquished, and left the House lacking both a leader and stability. Three times the House had voted on Jordan as Speaker of the House, and three times he failed to unite his own party and receive the votes needed to acquire said position. With each successive vote, Jordan lost more support. Jordan’s string of defeats served as the final straw for the GOP who, after the last open vote, chose to drop Jordan as their Speaker-nominee in a secret ballot.
          According to NYTimes journalist Carl Hulse, the Representative was brought down by “rule-followers,” which is an interesting, yet entirely accurate way to characterize his downfall. Had he succeeded, Jordan would have replaced the ousted McCarthy, whose abrupt removal was unprecedented and unsupported by a majority of Republicans. The change of power resulted from the efforts of just eight far-right Republicans to remove McCarthy, led by Florida Representative Matt Gaetz. Jordan’s political agenda, along with his undying support of Donald Trump, has led to him being endorsed by conservative Republicans and simultaneously doubted by more moderate members of the GOP.
          Furthermore, Jordan’s aggressive push to succeed McCarthy, which was accompanied with death threats issued towards Representatives who voted against him, alarmed all sides of the political spectrum. Despite Jordan’s methods, a small band of moderate Republicans were able to block his becoming Speaker, with their numbers increasing with each successive vote. As Jordan made his way out of the ever-divided chamber, Republicans were left to make sense of their predicament and to answer the questions at hand: who was going to be their Speaker, and what were they to make of their situation? The current turmoil in the House presents a critical situation for the Republican Party, as the estrangement among its members continues to drive it apart. So perhaps a better question Republicans should be asking themselves is how did we get here?
          In less than two decades, the Republican Party has obtained a new identity. A modern right-wing voter is nothing like one from the early 21st century, a scenario reflected in the GOP’s evolution of presidential candidates. For example, compare the philosophies of the 2012 and 2020 GOP Presidential nominees—Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. While Mitt Romney has typically been characterized as being more moderate, the same cannot be said about Trump.  
          Yet what caused such a massive shift in the GOP was not an event conservative in origin. Instead, a major catalyst for the GOP’s transformation occurred as a result of Barack Obama’s presidency. 
On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law (more commonly referred to as Obamacare), seeking to increase access to affordable health insurance. While Obamacare was applauded by the left and had relatively broad popular support, the concept of the Federal government substantially expanding its reach was political anathema in the eyes of some members of the Republican Party. Some sections of the ACA appealed to both parties, such as its efforts to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions from being denied healthcare coverage or having to pay substantially more for coverage. Yet despite the silver linings that the GOP found in Obamacare, the party still heavily opposed it, with both the 2012 and 2016 GOP presidential nominees promising that abolishing Obamacare was their very first priority. This was easier said than done, as while Donald Trump won in 2016, Obamacare remains after its repeal was blocked by a handful of GOP senators in 2017, most notably John McCain.
This, however, was not the end of the story, as in the run-up to the ACA’s passage, the far-right of the GOP galvanized into a movement they called the “Tea Party”, which wanted a more limited government. The movement originated from an Obama-era policy to assist mortgage holders, which some viewed as an expansion of welfare. On February 19, 2009, while speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, during a statement harshly rebuking Obama’s policies, called for a “Tea Party”—a direct reference to the Boston Tea Party—to halt government intervention in the housing market. The name also served as an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already,” a belief that the party itself soon became built upon. Shortly after its release, Santelli’s five-minute speech went viral, becoming a rallying cry for hard-line conservatives in favor of lower taxes and less government involvement. 
In the 2010 midterm elections, the Tea Party had tremendous power; many of its members made their way into Congress, fundamentally altering the values of the Republican Party itself. Although the Tea Party faded after the 2010 midterms, the movement itself was not lost. 
Instead, it evolved.
          In 2016, a dark-horse presidential candidate came onto the scene—Donald Trump. Despite his lack of experience in politics, Trump quickly became popular with Tea Party-like Republicans thanks to policies such as striking down Obamacare and cracking down on immigration. Through the efforts of Trump, “Taxed Enough Already” was replaced by “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA. Trump’s successful appeal to Republican voters resulted in him unpredictably winning both the Republican nomination as President and ultimately beating Democrat-nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential Election. Trump’s presidency ushered in a new era for the GOP, and he soon became the new face of the party. Throughout his presidency, Trump’s control of the party tightened, leaving little room for opposition within his party. Many who dared go against Trump quickly found themselves at the mercy of the GOP. 
Take Senator Lindsey Graham for example. In 2015, following Trump’s clinching of the GOP nomination, he voiced his disapproval. 
          “You know how to make America great again?” Graham asked. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” But since Trump’s victory in 2016, Graham has morphed himself into one of the former President’s most loyal defenders to remain in power within his own party. 
While Senator Graham was able to obtain redemption from Republicans, others were not so lucky. Following the occurrence of the infamous January 6 riots, Representative Liz Cheney was one of ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in instigating the event. Cheney’s vote lost her House GOP leadership positions, and she was voted out of office in the next election. 
          Although Trump remains the poster child of the GOP, opposition to his leadership has increased, resulting in increased division within the Republican Party. Today, Republicans find themselves torn between committing to Trump’s fanbase and risking the stigma of speaking out against his leadership. The GOP finds itself in an increasingly unfavorable situation, with no clear path ahead. The turmoil in the House is just one example of this, as Republicans scramble to find new leadership in the wake of Jordan’s defeat. 165 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This timeless quote is still applicable today, serving as a warning sign for the Republican Party itself.