Expert: GOP in crisis after Trump-loving Republicans enabled extremists
Madison Cawthorn (Image: Madison Cawthorn campaign)
The Republican Party’s indulgence of far-right extremists has left it divided entering the primary season -- and that’s created uncertainty as to whether the party will dominate the midterm elections as expected.

That’s the view of Howard Schweber, a national expert in American constitutional law and politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In an exclusive Raw Story interview, Schweber said former President Donald Trump has placed the party in a bind.

“We are in a strange territory because Donald Trump has already divided the Republican Party to a very significant extent, Schweber said. “By going around endorsing candidates against sitting Republicans or others backed by the state Republican parties, he’s essentially promoting a sort of insurgency within the party.”

But asked for his advice to Democrats, Schweber cautioned against making Trump a key issue in the 2022 midterm elections.

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“I think the record is pretty clear that for Democrats running against Trump in the midterms is a weak strategy,” Schweber said. “If there is a chance to avoid a disaster it lies in showing reasons for optimism, including steps to rein in inflation, and shifting the focus of the discussion away from vaccine mandates and toward America's position as a world leader.

“Many Trump voters supported his call for a new isolationism, but not all of them by any means. Domestically, a narrower and more focused agenda that yields concrete accomplishments is the best way to counter the hysterical attempts to paint the Democrats as radical socialists.

“If Trump is the GOP nominee in 2024, that will be the time to bring up his coziness with dictators; in 2022 the Democrats need to focus on the candidates in the races at hand.”

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Here's Schweber’s interview with Raw Story:

Q. Your home state of Wisconsin was one of the three closest in the nation in 2020. But the Republicans keep turning out some of the most extreme candidates, including Sen. Ron Johnson. Why’s that?

A. The Wisconsin Republican Party is going through a crisis at the moment. Its leadership, particularly in the legislature, was elected in a tea party wave and has been at the far-right end of national Republicans. They've held power through some of the most ruthless gerrymandering in the country, and they've played hardball politics to an extreme. Along with that, in recent years, there has been tremendous loyalty to Trump. The problem with being loyal to Trump is that he constantly asks for more and more. So, we have kind of a race to claim the right flank, as often happens in intra-party politics. But in this case, to claim the mantra of being a true believer in the Wisconsin Republican Party, it seems that what's required is very. very far into the area of conspiracy and what has become known as the Big Lie.

Q. But isn’t Wisconsin still a moderate state overall?

A. Yes. We’ve elected a Democratic governor. Not long ago we had 2 Democratic senators, even after Republicans took control of the state legislature. The statewide offices have gone back and forth but the elections have simply been distorted, as I suggested, by an absolutely drastic system of gerrymandering that was put into place in 2010 so that the Republican candidates in the state legislature and in Congress get far more representation than would be justified by their share of the statewide vote. It's a very closely divided state and you would think that from a strategic perspective, to allow this kind of division to emerge in one of the parties would be considered suicidal. The problem is that as Republicans nationally have discovered it's much easier to rile up extremists and conspiracy theorists than it is to control them after they become active.

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Q. How big a problem has that become for them?

A. You can choose your metaphor. But this is a matter of 'riding the tiger,' if you’d like, and the leadership is discovering that there are essentially no limits to how far they will have to go to hold on to that portion of the base. The Republican leadership both nationally and in Wisconsin is really very worried that they could lose the governorship and the senatorial election in the state. Johnson’s reelection race is an example of that. if the appeal of the Republican candidates becomes too narrowly defined around the most extreme portion of the Republican base, it could lose a large number of people, including more moderate Republicans and independents.

Q. How do you plot Johnson on that extremist spectrum at this point?

A. He started out presenting himself as a kind of middle-of-the-road Wisconsin-style moderate, but he has now become one of the most extreme peddlers of conspiracy theories. His calculation, it appears, is that the way to success in the Republican Party is to hang on to the extreme pro-Trump flank and assume that all the other Republican voters will come along for the ride.

Q. But voters tend to respond to persona as much as ideology these days. So, doesn’t his obvious flip-flopping and disingenuousness hurt him a lot?

A. Whether it’s the inconsistency or the extremism of his current positions -- particularly with respect to things like vaccines -- that is the reason his approval rating has dropped through the floor. It’s down to 36%. He is counting on two traditional phenomena: one, that in midterm elections that turnout is low; and two, that it skews heavily to the party not in power. Actually, let's add a third, that (President Joe) Biden's national popularity is very low. So, I think he’s counting on the idea that those three things together will create a situation in which 36% approval is enough to get reelected. He might be right, but it’s certainly a high-risk strategy.

Q. You care to prognosticate the outcome?

A. I think it’s going to be close, actually. I think he’s right about the low turnout, and that there will be better Republican turnout than Democratic turnout and the Republicans who show up will disproportionately represent the extreme end of the party. Whether that’s enough to overcome a 36% popularity approval rating remains to be seen. It will depend on the quality of the opposition and what happens in the campaign. But I think it will be close.

Q. For those of us who don’t follow Wisconsin closely, is there one Democrat who has the best chance against him?

A. There’s not a clear frontrunning presently and I don’t have a pick in this race.

Q. There’s a widespread assumption that the midterm elections nationally will be terrible. That’s partly because of the factors you described voting patterns and Biden’s approval ratings, as well as the mood of the country. But could wild cards like the January 6 investigation and Trump’s other legal troubles change that?

A. I think it’s too early to tell. I will make a prognostication that it’s going to be decided late. I do think that any outcomes of the civil and criminal litigation are baked in. That is, people’s positions are already accounted for and whatever happens probably won’t make much of a difference. But on the other hand, we are in a strange territory because Donald Trump has already divided the Republican Party to a very significant extent by going around endorsing candidates against sitting Republicans or others backed by the state Republican parties, he’s essentially promoting a sort of insurgency with the party.

Q. How do you think that will work out?

A. Trump’s in a position to be very effective doing that. But there is the possibility that

significant numbers of Republican voters will simply stay home, particularly if the intraparty fighting gets vicious, as it’s starting to become in some places

Q. Do you think Trump’s influence is waning, growing or staying the same in the party?

A. The short answer is that it’s waning, but I have to qualify that by saying that you can’t forget he was coming from a position of absolute dominance. He had nowhere to go in terms of influence except down or stay the same. But I do think there are more Republicans thinking, rightly or wrongly, than they can succeed without him.

Q. If you were advising Democrats, how would you have them handle the Trump factor this year?

A. I think the record is pretty clear that for Democrats running against Trump in the midterms is a weak strategy. If there is a chance to avoid a disaster it lies in showing reasons for optimism, including steps to rein in inflation, and shifting the focus of the discussion away from vaccine mandates and toward America's position as a world leader. Many Trump voters supported his call for a new isolationism, but not all of them by any means. Domestically, a narrower and more focused agenda that yields concrete accomplishments is the best way to counter the hysterical attempts to paint the Democrats as radical socialists.

Q. Couldn’t Trump’s outrageous affinity for Vladimir Putin come into play?

A. If Trump is the GOP nominee in 2024, that will be the time to bring up his coziness with dictators; in 2022 the Democrats need to focus on the candidates in the races at hand.”

Q. Should Democrats be rooting for some of the extremist Republicans to win in the primaries on the theory that they’ll turn off moderates and independents and bring down Republicans in November?

A. I'm always concerned when the gamesmanship gets quite that cynical, and I’ll tell you why. Several decades ago, there was an election in Wisconsin -- in those days, the primaries were open -- in which Democrats mobilized in substantial numbers to vote in the Republican primary.

They wanted to nominate the candidate who they were sure could not possibly win. He was uncouth, he was radical, he was extreme. His name was Joe McCarthy.

Q. Wow.

A. The country paid a very dear price for that particular bit of gamesmanship. So, I would hope that on the Democratic side, there would be at least some concern for the health of the two-party system and our democracy. However, certainly in the purple states like Wisconsin -- many of which have close races --, there’s a perception that the nomination of a more radical Republican candidate increases the likelihood of a Democratic victory. That's one of the reasons that although all the structural elements are in place Republicans sweep in this election, the unsettled state of the Republican field and the outsider character of some of the candidates who are emerging might be a wild card. And that might give Democrats a chance to claw back or hold on to some seats that they were not confident in keeping before.

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