However—have you spotted a pattern?—this didn’t pan out either. Republicans routed Democrats in 2010 (Obama’s term for this was a shellacking), and while Obama held the White House in 2012, the GOP kept the House, and captured the Senate in 2014. Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s nomination for the presidency in 2016 elicited new, confident declarations of the death or impending death of the GOP, from liberals, nonpartisan observers, and even future Trump toadies.
The Federalists relegated themselves to electoral obsolescence, handing one-party rule to the Democratic-Republicans, but the American system—first-past-the-post elections and (predominantly, and later statutorily) single-member districts—more or less demands two parties. The Democratic-Republicans split, producing a new two-party system, with Democrats and Whigs. Then the Whigs fractured over slavery, with some of them creating the Republican Party. Since Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860, the Democratic and Republican duopoly has been only fitfully and weakly challenged.
Jamelle Bouie, in The New York Times, introduces some reasons to be skeptical that the collapse of either the Federalists or the Whigs is an apt comparison, parsing the specific historical context for each collapse. But the best reason to doubt a Republican collapse comes from looking not at the past but at the present. Previous party collapses have occurred when parties have splintered, and there’s no sign that that’s happening in today’s GOP, because modern political parties are much harder to break apart than their historical antecedents were.
Trump’s Republican critics have not produced any significant movement toward a Republican Party schism, in part because there are so few of them. In 2016, Never Trumpers sought to run a candidate who better represented the GOP establishment. They settled on Evan McMullin, who came in fifth, behind the Green and Libertarian candidates, with just over 700,000 votes; Trump won almost 63 million.
McMullin has discussed forming a new party in 2021, but the Republican resistance to Trump has mostly fallen into three camps. Some, such as former Senator Jeff Flake and former Representative Justin Amash, have left politics altogether. Others, such as Senator Mitt Romney, Representative Liz Cheney, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, have clung to the GOP even while bluntly criticizing the former president. A third group, encompassing pundits and public figures such as Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol, has become de facto conservative Democrats, supporting the Biden presidency.
Beyond matters of policy and ideology, politics has become an industry unto itself. Enormous sums of money flow through both party apparatuses and outside groups, and politicians and operatives gather under the same banners. The Republican Governors Association includes everyone from Hogan to the devoted Trump disciple Kristi Noem of South Dakota. The National Republican Congressional Committee backs both Jamie Herrera Beutler, who spoke out in favor of impeaching Trump, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is Marjorie Taylor Greene. GOP politicians hire the same strategists and pollsters, read the same outlets, and attend the same events at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and CPAC.
This structure doesn’t make parties static; it just makes them less likely to splinter and more likely to transform themselves in order to remain electorally viable. That’s how the Democratic Party of segregation and the Solid South became the Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It also points to some of the possibilities for the Republican Party. As Cobb writes, the GOP could continue to use voter-suppression laws, combined with its structural advantages, to remain a powerful party even without the ability to win majority national support. The Democratic analyst David Shor worries that Republicans could continue to peel off the votes of ideologically conservative minority voters, a process that would be very detrimental to Democrats. The GOP could also continue to strike the dubious populist pose—more cultural than material—that Trump did.