Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida who was belittled and then defeated by Donald Trump in the 2016 election primary, came to embrace the president, defending him even after he was impeached.
But on Friday morning, following the invasion of the US Capitol Building by pro-Trump supporters, Mr Rubio called for his party to chart a new course that no longer indulged the “darkest instincts” and “most destructive impulses”.
“It wasn’t long ago that we controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House,” Mr Rubio said in a video released by his office. “And, four years later, we’ve lost all three. We need to reflect on why this has happened, because this country needs a viable, attractive alternative to the agenda of the radical left.”
Mr Rubio’s call for a reset came after a week in which a Republican president who has refused to accept his electoral defeat incited a mob assault on the US Capitol Building, and the party lost control of Congress following twin Senate defeats in Georgia.
A civil war has opened up within the party between Mr Trump’s defiant loyalists and a growing cast of critics, and between Republican lawmakers and their disillusioned corporate donors. The party is split on whether to engage with the incoming administration of Joe Biden or obstruct it.
Adding to these dilemmas is the question of the party’s relationship with Mr Trump and his family once he leaves office. Members of the First Family have repeatedly threatened to crush any Republican who did not support the president’s efforts to overturn the election.
The conservative electorate, meanwhile, remains in lock-step with the outgoing president. According to a snap YouGov survey released on Thursday, just 27 per cent of Republicans considered the attack on the Capitol a threat to democracy, while 45 per cent of them approved of the storming of the halls of Congress.
“There’s very high tension running between members’ conscience, and what their constituents want,” said Brendan Buck, a former senior Republican congressional aide, and a partner at Seven Letter, a consultancy in Washington.
“I am hesitant to think that this is going to cause any real sea change.”
Senior Republican lawmakers who tolerated, collaborated and heaped praise on Mr Trump over the years have suddenly turned on him, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Paul Ryan, the former House speaker. Meanwhile, John Boehner, who led the Republican-controlled House of Representatives during Barack Obama’s term as Tea party lawmakers laid the groundwork for Trumpism, issued his own call for change.
“I once said the party of Lincoln and Reagan is off taking a nap. The nap has become a nightmare for our nation. The GOP must awaken,” Mr Boehner wrote on Twitter. “The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic,” he said.
But whether the Republican party can use the opportunity of Mr Trump’s downfall to unite around a return to its earlier days is questionable. In the House of Representatives, a majority of Republican lawmakers voted to reject Arizona’s electoral vote count even after the rioters stormed Congress. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the architects of the rebellion against the legitimacy of Mr Biden’s victory in the Senate, who both harbour presidential ambitions in 2024, are unrepentant.
Tony Fratto, a former senior official in the Treasury and White House under George W Bush, says the split within the Republican party dates back to the mid 2000s, and has been growing ever since. But Mr Trump has taken it into uncharted territory.
“He truly made this party’s grassroots strength a cult of personality,” Mr Fratto said. “And unlike any other president who has lost, he has no intention of leaving the arena. And he has no intention of stopping his leadership of that faction of the party. So I think it’s going to be very rocky,” he said.
Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican representative from Florida, said the majority of his former GOP colleagues in Congress had come to accept the reality that Trumpism was no longer a “long-term strategy” for the party.
“A lot of members [of Congress] will tell you that they knew this day would come and certainly most of them feel a lot more political freedom to speak and act against the president,” Mr Curbelo said.
That trend, he said, had already begun last month when congressional Republicans helped override Mr Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act and rejected Mr Trump’s demand to increase stimulus payments in a new coronavirus relief bill.
“What happened this week was just an accelerator,” he said.
But Republicanism may have been transformed by Mr Trump. Whereas on low taxes and deregulation there is broad agreement, the US president’s protectionist, isolationist and xenophobic trade and immigration policies are loathed by some and cheered on by others within Republican ranks.
Meanwhile, the party’s relationship with traditional business interests and financial donors is under severe strain. In the wake of Wednesday’s attack, several longtime donors and supporters of Mr Trump said they would no longer stand behind the president and would not back him if he chose to run again in 2024.
“You can't be associated with that . . . It’s unequivocal what happened and it’s unequivocal who’s responsible for it,” said David Tamasi, a fundraiser for Mr Trump. “Hawley, Cruz and Trump have no place in the 2024 discussion.”
“The desecration of the Capitol is not going to be forgotten,” said Dan Eberhart, who gave more than $100,000 to Mr Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. “He cost Senator McConnell his leadership position and now he’s shitting all over the Capitol — I think that’s a pretty strong statement about how President Trump feels about the Republican party.”
Efforts by Republicans to return the GOP to a moderate, centre-right party after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election failed and paved the way for the rise of Mr Trump. Some critics have pointed out that even though Mr Rubio opened the door to a rethink, he too fell short of a full repudiation of the president.
“If Rubio wants to be a leader in the party and take it to a place where it can be both principled and effective and attractive to people who call themselves Republicans, it takes a lot of work. You know it’s not going to be done by just a video,” Mr Fratto said.
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