How a Defeated Trump Is Making a Muddle of the G.O.P.

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WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers are passing voting restrictions to pacify right-wing activists still gripped by former President Donald J. Trump’s lie that a largely favorable election was rigged against them. G.O.P. leaders are lashing out in Trumpian fashion at businesses, baseball and the news media to appeal to many of the same conservatives and voters. And debates over the size and scope of government have been overshadowed by the sort of culture war clashes that the tabloid king relished.

This is the party Mr. Trump has remade.

As G.O.P. leaders and donors gather for a party retreat in Palm Beach this weekend, with a side trip to Mar-a-Lago for a reception with Mr. Trump on Saturday night, the former president’s pervasive influence in Republican circles has revealed a party thoroughly animated by a defeated incumbent — a bizarre turn of events in American politics.

Barred from Twitter, quietly disdained by many Republican officials and reduced to receiving supplicants in his tropical exile in Florida, Mr. Trump has found ways to exert an almost gravitational hold on a leaderless party just three months after the assault on the Capitol that his critics hoped would marginalize the man and taint his legacy.

His preference for engaging in red-meat political fights rather than governing and policymaking have left party leaders in a state of confusion over what they stand for, even when it comes to business, which was once the business of Republicanism. Yet his single term has made it vividly clear what the far right stands against — and how it intends to go about waging its fights.

Having, quite literally, abandoned their traditional party platform last year to accommodate Mr. Trump, Republicans have organized themselves around opposition to the perceived excesses of the left and borrowed his scorched-earth tactics as they do battle. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, excoriated businesses this week for siding with Democrats on G.O.P.-backed voting restrictions, only to backpedal after seeming to suggest he wanted corporations out of politics entirely.

They are doing relatively little to present counterarguments to President Biden on the coronavirus response, his expansive social welfare proposals or, with the important exception of immigration, most any policy issue. Instead, Republicans are attempting to shift the debate to issues that are more inspiring, and unifying, within their coalition and could help them tar Democrats.

So Republicans have embraced fights over seemingly small-bore issues to make a larger argument: By emphasizing the withdrawal from publication of a handful of racially insensitive Dr. Seuss books; the rights of transgender people; and the willingness of large institutions or corporations like Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola to side with Democrats on voting rights, the right is attempting to portray a nation in the grip of elites obsessed with identity politics.

It’s a strikingly different approach from the last time Democrats had full control of government, in 2009 and 2010, when conservatives harnessed the Great Recession to stoke anger about President Barack Obama and federal spending on their way to sweeping midterm gains. But Mr. Biden, a white political veteran, is not much of a foil for the party’s far-right base and is unlikely to grow more polarizing with the country at large.

“2010 had the veneer of philosophical and ideological coherence, but we don’t even bother paying lip service to that now,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist. “Trump made grievances that were the aperitif into the entree.”

While this approach may not be the political equivalent of a well-balanced meal — a plan for long-term recovery — that does not mean it’s a poor strategy for success in the 2022 elections that will determine control of the House and Senate.

Even Democrats see the risk that Republican messaging on cultural issues will resonate with a large segment of voters. Dan Pfeiffer — a former aide to Mr. Obama who suffered through what his boss called the 2010 “shellacking” — warned members of his party this week that they should not simply roll their eyes when Republicans lament “cancel culture.”

“Republicans are raising these cultural topics to unite their party and divide ours,” he wrote in an essay. “Therefore, we must aggressively move the conversation back to the economic issues that unite our party and divide theirs.”

Longtime Republicans don’t much deny that. “Democrats have done the one thing I never thought could happen this quickly — they’ve caused Republicans to take their eyes off what divides us and made us set our eyes on the true opposition,” crowed Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist.

That may be on overly rosy assessment given that Mr. Trump is still hungry for payback against his intraparty critics, with a series of contentious primaries on deck and Democrats poised to reap the benefits of an economic recovery.

But there is no doubt that Republicans are rallying around a style of post-Trump politics that makes that prefix superfluous.

In particular, they are eager to highlight immigration at a moment when there is a surge of undocumented migrants at the border. Besides being Mr. Trump’s signature issue, it also has the strongest cultural resonance with their heavily white base.

An NPR/Marist survey last month found that while 64 percent of independent voters approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of the pandemic, only 27 percent supported his approach to immigration.

At a private lunch last month on the same day House Democrats pushed through Mr. Biden’s stimulus bill, Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican with the ear of Mr. McConnell, confidently predicted that the influx at the border would be the party’s ticket back to the majority.

“I think this is a central issue in the campaign in 2022 — in part because it’s not clear to me that Joe Biden is strong enough and has the political willpower to do what is necessary and get the border under control,” Mr. Cotton said in a subsequent interview.

It is not just conservatives who are focusing on the border. Representative John Katko, a moderate New York Republican who represents an upstate district that went heavily for Mr. Biden, warned that immigration flare-ups would be “hung around” Mr. Biden’s neck if he was not careful.

“It’s not a good issue for people in the suburbs; it’s not a good issue for moderate Republicans; it’s not a good issue for moderate Democrats; it’s certainly not a good issue for independents,” he said.

With much to gain from blaming the issue on Democrats, Republicans have all but abandoned a comprehensive immigration agreement, despite the pleadings of the business lobby.

But that is hardly the only issue on which Republicans are growing uncomfortable with industry, although they are being selective in their choices.

Mr. McConnell, for instance, continues to hold up the 2017 tax cuts, which slashed the corporate rate, as the crown jewel of the party’s legislative accomplishments in the Trump years, and he is highly unlikely to join a union picket line anytime soon.

But he plainly sees a political upside in confronting Major League Baseball and the corporate titans, like Delta and Coca-Cola, that have denounced Georgia’s voting bill — an intervention that itself would have been unlikely in a pre-Trump era.

“Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order,” he warned this week, later adding that he had no problem with businesses’ continuing to fund candidates.

Others in the party have gone even further, threatening the antitrust exemption professional baseball enjoys — a distinctly Trumpian retribution tactic.

Recent party polling indicates that, more than any issue, Republican voters crave candidates who “won’t back down in a fight with the Democrats,” a finding that showed up in a survey by the G.O.P. firm Echelon Insights earlier this year.

People who have gravitated to the right “feel the way of life that they have known is changing rapidly,” Kristen Soltis Anderson, the Republican pollster who conducted the survey, said in an interview with Ezra Klein.

Republicans have sought to stoke those fears, wielding liberal positions on issues like policing or transgender rights as culture war bludgeons, even if it means dispensing with some conservative values. In Arkansas this week, a drive by conservative legislators to make it illegal for transgender children to receive gender-affirming medication or surgery drew a veto from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican. He argued that the bill would “set new standard of legislative interference with physicians and parents” and that it failed to make exceptions for children who had already begun hormone treatments. Still, he was overridden by his party’s lawmakers, and Mr. Trump assailed him as a “lightweight RINO.’’

Yet it’s the willingness to engage in brass-knuckle political combat that’s most important in the party right now.

“It has become the overarching virtue Republicans look for in their leaders,” said Mr. Reed, the G.O.P. strategist. He said that in an earlier, less tribal era, the party would have backed off the divisive Georgia bill limiting voting access. “After business and the media circled the wagons, we would have called the legislature back in, done some fixes and moved on,” he said. “Now we just dig in.”

The shifting culture of the G.O.P. is on clear display in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is emerging as presidential timber, almost entirely because he has weaponized news coverage critical of his handling of the coronavirus.

Mr. DeSantis’s actual response to the crisis is not what delights conservatives; rather, it’s how he bristles at skeptical coverage, just as Mr. Trump did when he was excoriating the “fake news.” The most recent example came this week when “60 Minutes” aired a segment that suggested Mr. DeSantis had improperly made Publix grocery stores, which are ubiquitous in Florida, distributors of the coronavirus vaccine after the company contributed $100,000 to him.

Mr. DeSantis did not cooperate with CBS for the piece. But with the sympathy of other Republicans, he cried foul about the segment after it ran and was rewarded with a coveted prime-time interview on Fox News to expound on his grievance.

“This is the beating heart of the Republican Party right now — the media has replaced Democrats as the opposition,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist in Kentucky. “The platform is whatever the media is against today, I’m for, and whatever they’re for, I’m against.”

That has made for an odd alchemy in the capital, where a number of business-oriented Republicans increasingly find themselves politically homeless. Notable among them is the Chamber of Commerce, which angered G.O.P. lawmakers by cozying up to Democrats but is now aghast at Mr. Biden’s proposed corporate tax hike.

“It’s a weird time,” said Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration official who supported Mr. Biden but represents business clients who are uneasy with a tax increase. “I don’t know where to go, but a lot of people don’t feel comfortable with where the parties are right now.”

Except, perhaps, for one recently retired Florida man.

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