In 1896, U.S. Sen. Henry Teller of Colorado, former Secretary of the Interior and one of the founders of the Republican Party, rose on the floor of the Republican convention and announced that he and 24 other Western delegates were leaving the party because they could not support the new platform language on the gold standard. In his speech, Teller said leaving his party would be painful, but “our consciences require us as honest men to make this sacrifice.” Teller and the others marched off the convention floor and formed the Silver Republican Party.
The example of Teller should guide principled Republicans today because the GOP must split. For too long, too many Republicans who were well-aware of who Donald Trump was, and what his movement represented, have been willing to look the other way to keep the Republican party from fracturing. That must end.
Instead of trying to hold it together, principled Republicans willing to put country before party need to encourage a split because a united Republican party — led by Trump or someone like him — is the greatest threat to freedom and democracy that America faces. We know that a united Trumpist GOP can win national elections. And we now know beyond all reasonable doubt that Trumpism is an authoritarian movement willing to subvert democracy and the Constitution.
To be specific, Sens. Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins should join with the 10 House members who voted for impeachment, including Washington state Reps. Jaime Herrera-Beutler and Dan Newhouse, and the Republican officials who stood firm during the election, such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, to form a new party, or a distinct dissident faction within the GOP. This movement would ripple through the Republican party and create a new reality, maybe even serving to encourage the Washington state GOP to return to its moderate traditions.
That is what should happen. It is what has happened at similar moments repeatedly during our history. Until relatively recently, our political parties were constantly splitting up, realigning, and reforming. The Federalist party broke up and vanished after the War of 1812. The Democratic Party split over the leadership of Andrew Jackson, eventually creating the Whig party. The Whigs broke up in the 1850s over the issue of slavery, and the Republican party emerged. Republicans split in 1896, and again in 1912 as the Bull Moose Progressives followed Theodore Roosevelt out of the GOP. Southern Democrats split with their party over civil rights in 1948, 1960 and 1968, before ultimately migrating to the Republicans.
But for the past 50 years, politically active Americans have sorted themselves into two teams, and two teams only, no matter how much they differed with other members of their own team. There is political logic in this. Splitting your voters leads to defeat. But at some point, principle must come before a desire to hold on to power.
And now Republicans who have defied Trump actually have a political incentive to split because Trump and his followers are coming for them with censure motions and primary challenges. Those few Republicans who have broken with the party have crossed the Rubicon. Trying go back now and profess your loyalty and beg for forgiveness is a fool’s errand. Ask Jeff Sessions how that worked out for him. During his losing primary campaign to regain his seat in the Senate, he tried to argue what a loyal Trumpist he really was, while Trump viciously attacked him. These rebel Republicans may not want a civil war, but that war has already started, and they need to fight back.
The dissident Republicans could and should band together and partner with the substantial Never Trump community of Republicans who have already left and formed organizations like The Lincoln Project, Defending Democracy Together, Stand Up Republic and The Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform. After 37 years as a Republican, that is the path I and many other former Republican leaders have taken. The infrastructure already exists to form a new party, or a strong dissident GOP faction. All that is lacking is the leadership of elected officials.
It is amazing that establishment Republicans have tolerated Trump for this long. In addition to being a boorish misogynist and racist, he has also shown himself to be a dangerous demagogue. And on trade, immigration, foreign policy and fiscal responsibility, he took the party in a direction 180 degrees opposite of Reaganism.
The Republican party should have split at the 2016 convention. It should have split over the impeachment vote in 2020, and it should certainly split now that we know for a fact that Trumpism is an authoritarian movement and a danger to democracy itself.
In 1896, Henry Teller followed his conscience and split the Republican party over monetary policy and the future of the economy. Do today’s few remaining principled Republicans have the courage to do the same now when the issue is nothing less than the preservation of our constitutional republic?