Opinion | Why Sane Republicans Are Purging Themselves

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Anthony Gonzalez leaves no doubt about what he thinks about Donald Trump and his impact on the GOP. The former president, he says, is like a “cancer,” and he has turned his party into a toxic and hostile environment.

“I don’t believe he can ever be president again,” he said.

But if Trump is the one supposedly headed for the exit, why is it Gonzalez who announced he would not seek reelection?

Last week, Gonzalez (Ohio), the 37-year-old former rising star, announced that he wouldn’t stay and fight his Trump-backed primary challenger, walking away from what had once been a safe seat in Congress.

The decision was greeted with dismay among anti-Trumpers of both parties who saw Gonzalez’s survival as a test of whether Trump’s grip on the GOP could be shaken. It also came as a surprise. Gonzalez was an attractive candidate, with a strong resume and lots of cash, and he had out-performed Trump by nearly 7 points in November. Why would he hand his nemesis an easy win?

The answer is Gonzalez didn’t quit because he feared he couldn’t win, but because it just wasn’t worth it anymore. Winning, it turns out, is not winning if the prize feels a lot more like a loss.

“You could fight your butt off and win this thing, but are you really going to be happy?” he asked. “And the answer is, probably not.”

This was the key to his decision to self-purge: He could spend a year fighting off merde-slinging deplorables, only to win another two years sitting in a caucus next to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), Paul Gosar (R- Ariz.) and the other avatars of Trumpism.

Defeat, even before a single vote is cast, might have been disappointing. It might even look to some like a conspicuous lack of competitive mettle. But that assumes the outcome is in doubt — which it isn’t. The Republican Party is already lost. And victory meant two more years trapped in a hellscape of crazified school board meetings, Trump rallies, My Pillow Guy insanity, Newsmax and Fox News hits, and a caucus run by Kevin McCarthy, a man without any principle beyond the acquisition of power.

So Gonzalez decided to become the latest Republican to walk away from it all.

Trump gloated, attributing Gonzalez’s fall to his “ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the sitting President of the United States, me.”

But the young congressman’s decision also highlighted once again the transformation of the GOP. The party is okay with members who dabble in white nationalism, peddle conspiracy theories and foment acts of political violence. Neither bigotry nor nihilism is disqualifying.

The one unforgivable sin, however, is telling the truth about the 2020 election.

By and large, GOP officeholders have internalized that message; they know that defying or even questioning Trump’s most bizarre claims is political suicide.

Trump has already made dozens of endorsements in down-ballot races against Republican officials who refused to back his claims of election fraud, not to mention the 10 members of Congress who actually voted to impeach him for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The result is a Trump-led purge of dissidents, but the bigger story — and the one with longer-term implications — may be the self-deportation of the sane, the decent and the principled, who simply opt to leave on their own.

Their political emigration is profoundly changing the face of the GOP, and it is happening at every level of politics, from local school boards to the United States Senate. Whatever the result of next year’s elections, the GOP that remains will be meaner, dumber, crazier and more beholden than ever to the defeated, twice-impeached former president.

Until this year, Anthony Gonzalez was not a particularly likely candidate for political martyrdom. His record was solidly conservative — he voted “right” 85 percent of the time, according to the conservative Heritage Action vote tracker. FiveThirtyEight found that he had voted with Trump nearly 89 percent of the time in the 116th Congress.

In 2020, Gonzalez had run unopposed in the GOP primary and won reelection in November with more than 63 percent of the vote. (Trump won the northeast Ohio district but by 6.7 percentage points less.) There was talk that the congressman, who has an MBA from Stanford and whose relatives fled Castro’s Cuba, could be a future governor or senator.

But that was before he became one of just 10 GOP representatives to vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. “The President of the United States helped organize and incite a mob,” he said. At the time he explained that he was “compelled” to vote for impeachment because of Trump’s “lack of response as the United States Capitol was under attack.”

Immediately, of course, he became a target of Trump’s wrath, but there were still reasons to think the former college and NFL player might be a survivor. For a lot of politicians, being a congressman is the most exciting thing they will ever do; it is the be-all and the end-all of their self-identity. But as I told Sports Illustrated earlier this year, that wasn’t the case with Gonzalez, who has done cooler things in his career, and so was less likely to blink than some of his other colleagues.

In addition, Gonzalez had more than $1.5 million in his campaign war chest and even though he faced a tough primary challenge next year, his Trump-backed opponent was a deeply flawed candidate. As POLITICO reported in July, his Trumpist challenger, Max Miller, had a reputation as “a cocky bully with a quick-trigger temper.”

Miller has a long record of speeding, underage drinking and disorderly conduct. According to sources, “a romantic relationship with former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham ended when he pushed her against a wall and slapped her in the face in his Washington apartment after she accused him of cheating on her.”

Gonzalez told reporters last week that he was confident he could have won his primary against Miller. But the 36-year-old father of two young children cited a rising tide of threats he and his family had to deal with after his impeachment vote. He recalled being greeted at the airport by two uniformed police officers, who were detailed to provide security. “That’s one of those moments where you say, ‘Is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?’” he told the New York Times.

In Georgia, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan went through the same gauntlet after he refused to support Trump’s claims of election fraud. “People wanted to rip my head off,” Duncan writes in a new book. “Friends disappeared or became rabid enemies overnight.”

Like Gonzalez, Duncan — also once a rising star in the GOP — has announced that he is not running for reelection next year.

In the end, they weren’t willing to pay the price to remain in a toxified Republican party. They are far from alone.

In 2018, according to Ballotpedia, 23 House Republicans retired from political life altogether, followed by another 20 who stepped away from political office in 2020. Others also retired, but ran for other offices. Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) continue to hang on, but they are increasingly isolated and outnumbered. The House retirees have been joined by centrist GOP senators like Jeff Flake, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who opted not to seek reelection. Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and North Carolina’s Richard Burr (who also voted to convict Trump) will also step down after next year’s election. They will be joined by Ohio’s Rob Portman, who voted to acquit Trump but was critical of his behavior.

All told, according to FiveThirtyEight, only 161 of the 293 Republican representatives and senators who were in office when Trump was inaugurated are still in office.

Of course, there were many different motives for the Republican departures, but all of them understood that survival in Trump’s GOP required multiple acts of self-humiliation that would, in the end, only win them more years of self-abasement.

And even after all of that, they knew that their obsequiousness and silence might count for nothing if they ever balked at Trump’s mendacity or his assaults on democracy.

Just ask Mike Pence.

So, it was a prize not worth fighting for.

From the outside, the apparent surrender of leaders like Gonzalez may look like a case of the best lacking all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

For Anthony Gonzalez, though, a chance to sit alongside Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.) and Louie Gohmert (Texas) in a Trumpified GOP caucus for another two years simply was not worth putting the lives of his wife and children at risk.

Gonzalez insists that, despite his retirement, he is not abandoning his opposition to Trump nor his determination to prevent him from holding office again. “Most of my political energy will be spent working on that exact goal,” he told the Times. Georgia’s Geoff Duncan strikes a similarly defiant note, pledging to help create a post-Trumpian GOP 2.0.

But this seems like a triumph of optimism over political reality. By leaving office and ceding the field to the Trumpists, they are also ensuring that the identity of the GOP is now frozen in place and will be for a generation.