As tempting as it may be to simply move on from the Trump presidency, four cathartic years now over and the American republic redeemed, we ought not to look upon the political currents which swept the 45th President to power as mere spent forces never again to re-emerge. Indeed, these same currents are far from having dissipated, the country is still considerably divided, and we might therefore do well to pay attention to what the former President himself, hours before leaving office, swore in front of cheering crowds: ‘we will be back’.
The fact of the matter is that Trump’s brand of right-wing populism is likely to remain, for the time being, tarring the American political landscape — even with Trump muzzled and potentially out of the political picture. With this in mind, the challenge of the GOP will be to integrate voters with whom Trump’s message resonated, maintaining their support for a party about which, prior to Trump, many exhibited a total apathy.
Fundamentally, the question of the hour is will the GOP rise to the occasion — will they prove resilient enough to survive a fundamental departure from traditional Republicanism unscathed, and will they want to?
To try and answer this question, we need to go back to the election. Right off the bat, November 3rd was no land slide — not by a long shot. Had Biden not won as well as he did, the GOP’s 74 million votes would have been the highest in US history.
Some two months later, the events of January 6th helped shed some light on just how many Republicans could be considered part of the ‘MAGA crowd’ — remaining loyal to the President despite his electoral defeat. For starters, according to a Politico–Morning Consult poll conducted in the days following the Capitol riots, Republican support for Trump had only declined by 8% meaning he could still boast the support of a 75% supermajority in the party.
Later that week, a YouGov poll revealed that approximately 45% of Republican respondents had in fact approved of the Capitol riots, and a further 12% didn’t register any particular emotion either way. The same poll found twice as many Republicans laid the blame for the unrest at the feet of Joe Biden (35%) than of President Trump (13%), and 63% approved of his conduct that week. Trump has many problems, but as of this moment a lack of support is not one of them.
It is in government that the story becomes slightly more nuanced.
On the one hand, House Republicans seem unshakeably loyal to the former President — take the 138 of them who challenged Pennsylvania’s presidential results following the Jan 6th riot or indeed the 197 who voted against Trump’s impeachment.
Granted, 10 House Republicans did indeed vote to impeach Trump, but the events of the past few days seem to indicate that they are being made an example of. Such was indicated in the observations of former Ohio state Rep. Christina Hagan when she commented that she had ‘never seen a greater amount of backlash for any one single vote’ — with primary challenges and cuts in donors springing up with remarkable speed.
On the other hand, the senate may well be another matter altogether, and one that may trouble the GOP going forward. Despite being content to enable Trump’s worst excesses over the past five years, if the recent claims of the respected investigative-journalist Carl Bernstein are to be believed, then there are at least 21 Republican Senators who have privately ‘expressed their disdain for Trump’. Indeed, many of those named by Bernstein are those same senators who so vociferously denounced Trump in his run for leadership of the GOP in 2016, suggesting the party is less than united.
Taken together with Senator Mitch McConnell’s accusations that American democracy was being sent into a ‘death spiral’ by the former President and Senator Lindsay Graham‘s begging of the President to accept the election results on the senate floor, and it’s not impossible to suggest that Senate Republicans may see a Trump-less party as an opportunity to navigate back towards a more moderate, traditional conservatism.
The problem is that the moment these same senior Republicans make moves to distance the GOP from Trump, the ensuing conflict with the House Republicans may well cause the party to split — something likely to stir the tens of millions of voters attracted more to Trump than traditional Republicanism.
All these calculations are being made against the backdrop of reports that Trump himself is interested in founding his own ‘Patriot’ party — funnelling supporters away from the GOP and towards the camp of right-wing populism. Questions of likelihood aside, the mere threat of this may push Republican grandees towards maintaining the current party platform for fear of haemorrhaging voters.
In trying to consolidate its position, the GOP will be fully aware that even if the Trump wing shrinks significantly, the party is already home to demanding factions wielding disproportionate influence relative to their size. Evangelicals only comprise 14% of the American electorate and yet their demands over abortion and gay marriage continue to shape Republican policy. It’s not impossible that a similarly committed Trump wing could likewise influence the future policy of a new GOP.
But if Republicans are indeed able to successfully balance the competing demands of their voters and of political and moral respectability, then there are certainly signs that they are well placed to make a comeback in 2022 and ‘24.
Trump’s gains among Hispanics might be expanded significantly if the incumbent were less known for repeatedly using them as a national scapegoat. So too could it be argued that the large turnouts of the past two elections make it possible that a less controversial figure could broaden Republican appeal — although granted the allure of Trump was his iconoclasm.
If they play their cards right, Republicans don’t even have to broaden the appeal that much. Only once since the election of Bush Sr. in ‘88 has a Republican candidate won the election with the popular vote — and although the Georgia run-offs put gerrymandering and voter-suppression back in the public eye, the GOP has a history of playing the political system when expedient to do so, and perhaps they will again. Less nefariously, the GOP could replicate Trump’s 2016 election plan by simply playing the Electoral College to their advantage.
But at the end of the day we just don’t know what the Republican Party will look like, if Trump himself will make a comeback, nor how his supporters will vote. If voters will have any patience with the Republican ‘swamp’ remains to be seen, and the idea that any party grandee could so much as think about imitating Trump’s style or his appeal is frankly ridiculous.
What we do know is that there are tens of millions of people to whom Trump’s message appealed directly and that, even through insurrectional violence, they were willing to stick with him. We would therefore do well to keep in mind that when Trump, to cheering crowds of these same Americans, remarks that ‘we will be back’, the rest of us would do well not to dismiss him.
Image credits: Gage Skidmore