Skip to content
Purge and Binge
Go to my account

Purge and Binge

Three cheers for the new Trump-dominated RNC.

Lara Trump, daughter-in-law of former President Donald Trump, attends the Republican National Committee spring meeting on March 8, 2024, in Houston, Texas. (Photo by CECILE CLOCHERET/AFP via Getty Images)

Any successful revolutionary populist movement will eventually purge its political enemies. And after it does, the new establishment it creates will be more corrupt and more ruthless than the one it replaced.

Those historical rules aren’t hard and fast but the exceptions are rare. When a populist insurgency takes charge, expect total consolidation of power—and chaos, of course—to follow.

The purge of the Republican Party by Donald Trump and his Jacobin base took longer than it had to, nearly 10 years from start to finish. That’s because Trump himself isn’t a revolutionary or even much of an ideologue. He’s a narcissist, so he would have happily kept the pre-Trump establishment intact forever as long as it agreed to blindly serve his needs.

Which, for most of those 10 years, it did. But some of his excesses proved so rotten that even the old guard couldn’t help but flinch at key moments. His 2020 coup attempt failed because too many Reaganites in government, most famously his own vice president, refused to become accomplices to smashing the constitutional order.

Now, four years later, there’s chatter about the Republican National Committee picking up part of the tab for his astronomical and still mounting legal fees, some of which stem directly from the aforementioned coup attempt. Trump’s campaign has said for the record that it won’t tap the RNC for legal expenses, but he’s done so before. And some leading figures on the committee are gung ho to keep the cash flowing.

So, at long last, the purge is here. Last week, with Trump’s support, the RNC chose his own daughter-in-law and a “rigged election” propagandist from North Carolina as its new co-chairs. On Monday, mass layoffs of the committee’s staff began; around 60 employees are expected to be liquidated before the dust settles. “Gutting a committee just before the election seems insane,” one former staffer told the Washington Post.

It does, doesn’t it? 

In theory, it’s all about efficiency. “Under the new structure, the Trump campaign is looking to merge its operations with the RNC,” Politico reported. “Key departments, such as communications, data and fundraising, will effectively be one and the same.” The group’s finance and digital teams are even being moved to Palm Beach, where Trump’s operation is headquartered, to facilitate coordination.

It’s not uncommon for a presidential nominee’s campaign and his party’s governing organization to integrate in an election year, but the atmosphere around this “merger” is different. For one thing, Trump’s Jacobin cronies are viewing it as an ideological bloodletting, not a matter of downsizing and streamlining.

Some are using the P-word. “We gotta see the building purged … All the building’s gotta be purged—100% purged,” Steve Bannon said recently of the RNC. One source close to the RNC told The Daily Beast he expected all 168 committee members—separate from staff—to eventually be cashiered and replaced with “a full Trump 168” in true Politburo style.

The purges are likely to be followed by a binge, another thing that makes this different from the usual election-year machinations. Despite promises from top Trump strategist Chris LaCivita that the RNC’s coffers wouldn’t be raided to pay the candidate’s legal bills, a resolution that would have barred that from happening failed to earn enough internal support to pass after it was submitted last week.

Some members sound downright enthusiastic about funneling money to Trump, frankly, reasoning that because his name is driving donations to the GOP he’s entitled to the proceeds. “What … is my basis/argument for not paying Trump’s legal expenses when it is money the Trump organization is bringing to the table?” one RNC member asked CNBC. Another argued that “The only mission of the Republican National Committee is to elect our presumptive nominee Trump as the 47th President,” which is an interesting concept of what a national political party is supposed to do. 

It’s a purge, with all the ruthlessness and self-dealing to come that you’d expect of ascendant populists feeding at the establishment trough. 

Personally, I think it’s great.

The prospect of a revolutionary populist movement running a country into the ground is a nightmare. It’s why I’m voting for Joe Biden in November: The sort of purges, corruption, and power consolidation that a second Trump term would bring are poison to the constitutional order.

But a revolutionary populist movement running its own party into the ground? What’s not to like about that?

My organizing thesis of this era in politics is that there is no “Trump problem” with the GOP. The actual problem is with the Republican majorities in the leadership class and among the grassroots who continue to support Trump no matter how loathsomely and illiberally he behaves. Solving that problem is a diffuse challenge; defeating him in November is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for curing the party of its “Trump enabler” affliction.

To have any chance of convincing right-wing voters that they need a new direction, the GOP will need to underperform up and down the ballot. And the surest way to make that happen is to starve national Republican organizations of the funds they’ll need to support party nominees in tight congressional and state races.

Having Trump and his family loot the RNC to pay his legal bills would be just what the doctor ordered.

Granted, right-wing donors are free to bypass the national committee and give to individual Republican campaigns if they choose. “I suspect if people thought a contribution to the RNC was going to legal bills that have nothing to do with the 2024 cycle they might be less likely to contribute to the RNC,” committee member Henry Barbour reasoned, understandably. But that’s the beauty of having Lara Trump in charge of the committee and soliciting cash. It’s one thing for a wealthy conservative to tell Ronna McDaniel “no” when she calls up and asks for a million dollars. It’s quite another to say so to a member of the royal family itself.

Especially knowing how vindictive the king can be toward those who’ve crossed him: Trump is running a campaign overtly based on “retribution,” for cripes sake. Imagine what might be in store for your business in terms of new regulatory burden or security government contracts if you turn down a request for cash from his daughter-in-law and then find him back in power next year. She’ll remember. And she’ll remind him.

Intimidation will ensure that the new RNC receives many more contributions from reluctant right-wing donors than it otherwise would, and odds are good that those donations will end up being diverted to lawyers or to buying golden toilets at Mar-a-Lago than to Republican candidates struggling in congressional races.

And insofar as the RNC does reserve funds to help GOP candidates down ballot, the dilemmas it’ll confront now that it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump Inc. will be thorny. If MAGA nemesis Larry Hogan ends up within striking distance of a momentous upset in Maryland’s Senate race in October, will the RNC come to his aid for the sake of growing its majority? Or will the logic of “retribution” require it to cut him loose in the name of satisfying one of Trump’s grudges?

If a conservative House candidate and a Trump-endorsed populist House candidate are each running neck-and-neck with Democratic opponents down the stretch, how would the RNC choose to ration its dollars between them? Would the candidate with the best chance of winning get the money, or the candidate whom Trump likes best?

All of that will lend an extra dimension to the recriminations between different factions of the right if the GOP underperforms again this fall, I’m happy to say. It’s what this rotten party deserves for its foolishness and cynicism since 2015. Poetic justice, literally.

The prospect of the Trump family squandering untold millions in campaign funds isn’t the only reason to appreciate the freshly purged RNC, though. If I’m right that the entire GOP, not just Trump himself, should be discredited in the eyes of those tempted to support it, a MAGA takeover of the party’s governing organization is a nifty way to accelerate that process.

Partisan conservatives have spent nine years distinguishing between the GOP and the man who leads it. It’s the essence of anti-anti-Trumpism and the antithesis of my point that there is no “Trump problem” on the right. Whatever one might think of his personal fitness for office or lack thereof, those conservatives will say, it’s not the case that the Republican Party writ large is unfit to wield power.

That argument grew ever more specious as the broad American right became dogged apologists for Trump’s degeneracy in all its forms, but it is true that the GOP as an institution has maintained some formal distance from its leader throughout this era. And why wouldn’t it, given how unpopular Trump is with most Americans? There’s a reason why a member of the Romney family led the RNC for seven years, why “Potemkin” presidential debates involving Reaganite candidates were held last year, and why a person as smart and relatable as Katie Britt is being eyed as Trump’s running mate. The party craves fig leaves of normalcy to disguise from undecided voters how freakishly abnormal it’s become.

Wouldn’t it be better, for the country and for the cause of truth in advertising, to have its abnormalcy finally laid bare? Well, the new leadership at the RNC does that.

You could hardly ask for a better tandem for the job than Lara Trump and Michael Whatley, the new co-chairs. The symbolism of a Trump replacing a Romney in a Republican leadership role speaks volumes, but Lara isn’t even royal by birth like Ivanka and Don Jr. She’s a Trump by marriage, with no real background in politics; installing her atop a major party smells of a monarch deeding some fiefdom to a minor in-law, partly out of lordly magnanimity and partly because that in-law will be easily controlled. “She’s not there to be an asset to the RNC, she’s there to be Trump’s eyes and ears,” one former Trump campaign official said to The Daily Beast.

The anti-anti-Trump fallacy that there’s some meaningful distinction between Trump and his party was always thin, but the elevation of Lara Trump makes it all but imperceptible.

Whatley is the “serious” member of the new partnership, having led the North Carolina GOP, but his claim to national leadership derives from the buffoonery to which he was willing to stoop to earn the king’s favor. He pushed conspiracy theories after the 2020 election and seems to have convinced Trump that the reason he won North Carolina that year was because Whatley made sure observers were at the polls to deter cheating. It’s plain as day why his patron wants him in charge of the RNC in 2024: When, not if, Trump reacts to another defeat in November by launching Stop the Steal 2.0, he expects aggressive institutional support from his party this time From reporting in the New York Times:

Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Whatley sums up the former president’s vision for the new RNC. He wants it to share his obsession with the false idea that President Biden and Democrats stole the 2020 election from him and are working to do it again in 2024. Mr. Trump believes Mr. Whatley is more in sync with his views about voter fraud than Ms. McDaniel, and he has insisted that Mr. Whatley will stop Democrats from “cheating” in November, according to two people who have spoken to Mr. Trump and who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

If there’s another tight race in swing states this fall, the RNC will be far more active after Election Day than it was in 2020, said Steve Bannon, the far-right podcast host and former chief strategist to Mr. Trump.

The Trump-era GOP is a party by and for cranks. Isn’t it for the best that it’s finally  acknowledging that fact frankly by elevating someone lowbrow and conspiratorial to lead its national committee?

The more candid the RNC becomes about the right’s true nature, the harder it gets for partisan conservatives to make persuasive excuses for remaining partisans. Republican politics in 2024 is half-racket, half-paranoia: The Lara Trump/Michael Whatley alliance covers both parts of the equation beautifully.

There’s one more reason to like the RNC purge. It’s a flashing neon sign to “Nikki Haley Republicans” that the party doesn’t want them anymore.

Haley had been confronted about that in interviews before leaving the race. “Isn’t it possible the party has moved, and the party is about Donald Trump and not what you’re describing, which might be the party of yesterday?” CNN asked her in an interview last month. “It is very possible,” the former governor replied, deadpan, as if there remained a shred of doubt. A week later, on Super Tuesday, whatever shred that was left was gone.

So long as there was a formal distinction between Donald Trump and the RNC, Haley could semi-plausibly say that the GOP is bigger than the man who leads it. But as it became clearer during the campaign that the committee had a favored candidate, she began to speak up more forcefully about the fact that, come to think of it, there isn’t much of a distinction between the two anymore. 

When rumors circulated in January that the RNC might declare Trump its presumptive nominee after his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, she accused the group of not being an “honest broker.” A month later, after news of the Trump-Whatley arrangement broke, she complained more pointedly: “Are we gonna let him just take over the party that’s gonna control the convention, too? At what point do we not see the problem? We don’t have kings in this country.”

A few days after that, she said she no longer felt bound by her pledge earlier in the campaign to support the eventual Republican nominee. Why? Because, she said, after the change in leadership, “the RNC is now not the same RNC” to which she had made that pledge.

She’s a Republican, not a Trumpist. The point of the purge at the RNC this week is to drive home to conservatives like her that there’s no longer a difference between the two. If you want to be one, you have to be the other. The powers that be—the new Republican establishment—are admirably blunt about it, too:

Many times in this newsletter I’ve used the analogy of a hostage crisis to explain the relationship of populists and conservatives to the institutional GOP. Eight years ago populists took the party hostage and threatened to kill it by boycotting elections going forward if their man, Donald Trump, didn’t get his way. Most conservatives responded by laying aside decades of their own rhetoric opposing appeasement of brinkmanship by hostile malefactors and appeasing the hell out of those populists, dutifully supporting Trump and his handpicked populist nominees down ballot at every turn.

And so, for eight years, the crisis persisted.

The RNC purge feels like the end of that crisis inasmuch as the hostage, the Republican Party as an organizational entity, is now willingly cooperating with its captor. It’s political Stockholm syndrome. Which raises the question: Why would Nikki Haley and “Haley Republicans” continue negotiating with those captors to try to save the hostage?

The hostage doesn’t want to be saved anymore. The crisis is over. There’s nothing to go back to apart from insanity like this. Just walk away.

Walk away and savor the absurdity of a national political party being led by people who are more keen to purge ideological heretics from their own ranks—in an election year!—than to build a coalition that can reclaim governing power and wield it effectively. Maybe that’s where the historical analogy with other revolutionary populist movements breaks down: Say what you will about the Jacobins, at least they wanted to win.

Whether Trump’s Jacobins win or lose, Haley Republicans will be better off for having departed before the election. They won’t want their fingerprints on the unholy illiberal mess of a second Trump term, assuming he prevails against Biden this fall. And if he doesn’t prevail, it’s best that only populists are left in the GOP afterward so that, as Jonah Goldberg astutely noted this morning, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for their electoral failure. They want a Trumpist party? Give it to ‘em. Finish the purge.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.