The Muscle Memory of Surrender: A Brief History of the Modern GOP

All of these smart Republicans who frankly did not understand how thoroughly corrupted their party had become, or the fact that if you cave in over and over again, you develop a muscle memory of surrender, and it’s hard to get back.

Charlie Sykes, The Bulwark Podcast, November 9, 2023

The quote above effectively summarizes the modern history of the GOP. Given his pre-Bulwark history in Wisconsin, perhaps he should have explicitly included himself in that collection of smart Republicans. Syke’s interview with McKay Coppins just one week earlier on his new book Romney: A Reckoning served as a speed run of recent GOP history of how far and how quickly the party moved away from those so-called smart Republicans many years before they actually realized it. Syke’s interview with Coppins actually jogs his own memory around 17 minutes into the interview that he actually had Donald Trump on his radio show at the time back in 2004.

When I listened to the interview, Romney’s book sounded like an extended attack of conscience regarding his own role in paving the way for the GOP to move even further to the right. To me, Mitt’s father George looks much better than his son by comparison because at every possible point, Mitt looked at the choices his father made (and the negative political consequences of those choices) and decided not to follow his father’s example. George Romney turned around a struggling automaker in Detroit in the 1950s. George Romney supported the civil rights movement, even trying and failing to prevent the GOP from surrendering to the likes of Barry Goldwater and his ultimately successful efforts to push black voters out of the GOP. George Romney served the Nixon administration as HUD secretary, trying to increase the supply of housing available to the poor and to desegregate the suburbs, but was deliberately undermined by Nixon in many cases.

His son Mitt by contrast wrote a New York Time op-ed titled Let Detroit Go Bankrupt in 2008. In his 2012 run for president, he famously told a private audience of wealthy campaign donors that “Obama backers will vote for the president ‘no matter what.’ Romney said that they account for ’47 percent’ of voters and he does not ‘worry about those people.'” Also during that campaign, Romney actively solicited the endorsement of Donald Trump–who was still actively fueling the birther conspiracy about Barack Obama at the time. Coppins cites numerous earlier examples of choices he consciously made in the interest of political expediency. A couple that stand out (though not as baldly and badly as seeking Trump’s endorsement):

  • taking a pro-choice position to win the gubernatorial race in Massachusetts despite his personal opposition to abortion
  • talking about “repealing the death tax” as an applause line to an audience filled with people who would never have to pay it

The interview goes on to talk about Romney bowing the knee to Trump in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to be appointed Secretary of State (effectively because he didn’t bow the knee far enough and publicly repudiate all the negative things he had said about Trump).

Perhaps the clearest indicators of the lack of understanding of the so-called smart Republicans that Sykes would criticize the following week can actually be found in the part of his interview with Coppins when they talk about who wins the GOP nomination in 2012 and 2008. Coppins expresses the belief (and Sykes seems to agree) that the turn of the GOP was a sudden one when in fact it was not. Here’s what Sykes says per the transcript:

You know, it occurs to me that his nomination in 2012 in many ways was a false indicator because, the party had already begun to change dramatically, but we were able to tell ourselves as conservatives that the center would hold that this was still the party that would nominate George Bush and John McCain and Mitt Romney. So it’s not the party of Pat Buchanan. It’s not the party of Don[ald] Trump. I mean, they’re there, but there’s a reason why, you know, people like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich don’t ultimately win. Yes.

Charlie Sykes, The Bulwark Podcast, November 2, 2023

Sykes is at minimum 4 years too late in identifying the “false indicator” election for the GOP nomination. The John McCain who won the GOP nomination in 2008 was a far cry from the man who ran in 2000. The John McCain of 2000 who specifically (and correctly) named Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as agents of intolerance on the political right was replaced in 8 years by a version who made peace with them, and cemented their support by choosing Sarah Palin as his vice president. What I was not aware of at the time, was that Palin was known commodity among the ardently pro-life in the GOP. Mitt Romney placed a distant third in pledged delegates in the 2008 GOP primary, behind Mike Huckabee. In 2012, Romney would follow McCain’s playbook in staking out hard right positions (for political expediency) to beat his contenders for the GOP presidential nomination only to be defeated when voters didn’t buy his attempts to move back to the center for the general election. As Romney (and others in the GOP) would demonstrate again and again in subsequent years (through the Trump presidency to the present day), having power was more important than having integrity.

Now, even one of those in the GOP who briefly showed sufficient spine to vote in favor of impeaching Trump for his role in the January 6th insurrection has begun to develop his muscle memory for surrender. Peter Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans who did so (and was ultimately defeated for re-election as a result), has pledged to support the Republican nominee for president in his current run for the Senate–going even further to say that Joe Biden had done more to disgrace the office of the presidency than the man he voted to impeach just a couple of years ago.

Meijer is no worse than the current pretenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. Nearly all remaining contenders pledged to support Trump even if he is convicted on one (or many) of the 91 different felonies he has been charged with. One angry social media outburst from Trump and the House speaker candidacy of Tom Emmer (notable for his relative lack of surrender to Trumpist priorities) went down in flames. His replacement–Mike Johnson–is unknown and inexperienced as a legislator, but was one of the key advocates of the Big Lie regarding the 2020 election and still to this day refuses to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election. Even as Trump-backed candidates and priorities continue to cost them victory after victory in ballot initiatives (like the one in Ohio that put the right to abortion into the state constitution) and in elections (like the ones in Virginia that saw Democrats retake full control of the General Assembly and the Kentucky gubernatorial election that kept the Democrat Andy Beshear in power and rejected the Republican state attorney general Daniel Cameron), the GOP’s muscle memory for surrender to its most extreme elements is too strong for them to break.