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The GOP’s identity crisis is about to get messier

Any chance of the Republican Party outgrowing Trump is decreasing rapidly.

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In this Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally for Senate Republican candidates Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., at Valdosta Regional Airport, in Valdosta, Ga.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Anyone who expected the new year to bring a new trajectory for the GOP had their hopes dashed last weekend.

Not only has President Donald Trump refused to concede the election — one, I might add, without any evidence of widespread fraud — but a recorded phone call with Georgia election officials revealed Trump’s coercion attempts to “find” more votes.

It’s an awful look for a party who some hoped would move on from the Trump administration and reinvent itself. Trump and his most ardent supporters are making any sort of transition all but impossible.

The GOP’s identity crisis takes center stage this week, perhaps its most consequential week since November’s election. On Tuesday, the Georgia runoffs will decide whether Republicans maintain the Senate majority; on Wednesday, Congress will officially certify the electoral college’s ballots. Both will help shape the GOP’s trajectory for the next four years.

While Tuesday’s events will have real, practical implications on the balance of power in Washington, Wednesday’s proceedings, in most years, are usually an afterthought. This year is different, as a growing number of Republican lawmakers — including Utah’s Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart — intend to challenge the presidential election’s results.

Such last-ditch posturing will do little to sway the election, but it could shape the direction of the GOP going forward. On one side, Stewart, Owens, Ted Cruz and others remain firmly in Trump’s corner, even after the fight — and challenge after challenge — have been called. On the other side, Mitt Romney joins a handful of colleagues in characteristically offering a voice of reason, calling the actions of his fellow Congressmen “an egregious ploy” and an “ill-conceived endeavor.” While an increasingly vocal faction of their party fan the flames of conspiracy, Romney, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins and other Republican lawmakers desperately spray the extinguishers.

That tension will not disappear after Wednesday, or after president-elect Biden’s inauguration, or on any predetermined date, though. The GOP is in for a long road to reinvention — reminiscent of the 2013 autopsy, but this time, more consequential, and admittedly more difficult. (No GOP lawmakers in 2012 were convinced Romney won.)

It’s the far right versus reality, conspiracy versus credibility — and all under the same roof. If Lincoln’s famous repetition of Matthew 12 still stands, any attempt at reforming the divided house of the GOP may collapse before it begins.

That may come as a surprise to few. “The Party of Lincoln would now likely be unrecognizable to the Great Emancipator,” Jeff Flake wrote in his 2017 book “Conscience of a Conservative.” Three years later, Sen. Flake could comfortably omit “likely.” Lincoln, author of the famed “Blind Memorandum,” was a firm believer in the electoral process and accepting the results, win or lose. 

That abandonment of principle — coupled with the unbridled nationalism and vile rhetoric of the Trump administration — has become characteristic of the past four years. It’s been enough to disenfranchise more than a few high-profile conservatives. If this election is indicative of the future of the party, many more will follow.

It’s a far cry from the conservatism these lawmakers claim to profess. “We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner,” Barry Goldwater wrote in the early 1960s. Six decades later, the conservative banner — where not torn to shreds — is cloaked in irresponsibility.

This week stands as a breaking point in the GOP’s tug-of-war between a future of relevance or a future of recklessness. Will Trump’s election shenanigans continue, or will he concede? Will his allies in Congress and his disciples in the streets, standing back and standing by, ever accept reality?

The answer could decide the party’s future. Boatloads of disillusioned conservatives, those who haven’t already abandoned the GOP, are waiting to see how the party will transform following Trump’s exit — and if no hope shines through soon, they will jump ship, too.