After four long years, Donald Trump has left the White House, departing Joint Base Andrews as Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ played overhead, the aftermath of the January 6th assault on the Capitol still lingering in the air. But Trump’s legacy and his stronghold over the American right poses an interesting question: what comes next for the Republican Party?
In the initial wake of the Capitol riots, a move away from Trump and his politics appeared imminent. Several prominent Republican senators publicly denounced the former President, including Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who, despite being a long-time supporter of Trump, said “enough is enough”. Meanwhile, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), previously an ardent defender of Trump, asserted that the Capitol mob was “provoked by the President”.
This immediate opposition was also seen in the House, with Garret Graves (R-LA) suggesting that Trump should “effectively resign” and Steve Stivers stating that he should be “held accountable” for his role in inciting the Capitol mob on January 6th. The chorus of voices directly calling out the former President seemed to suggest that the Republican Party was ready to move away from Trump, back to the old style of ‘politics as usual’. Now, they had found a clear reasoning to create this distance.
Yet neither Graves nor Stivers, as well as many other Republicans who had denounced the President, actually voted for impeachment, afraid perhaps of the backlash they would face from staunch Trump voters. An electoral risk they were not willing to take. This is the exact fate faced by Liz Cheney (R-WY), one of ten Republican senators who did vote for Trump’s impeachment. Cheney’s decision led to widespread condemnation from her Republican colleagues and the right-wing media, including Wyoming Republican Chairman Bryan Miller, who labelled Cheney’s vote “a huge betrayal”. Meanwhile, an early attempt by Anthony Bouchard to challenge Cheney in the 2022 Wyoming primary signals the immediate electoral vulnerability brought on by her vote against the former President.
Senator Cheney’s predicament encapsulates the impossible position the Republican Party finds itself in, where it can neither fully support Trumpism without disillusioning the more moderate side of the party, nor can it directly oppose him without risking political suicide
However, only a matter of weeks later, attitudes within the Republican party have changed significantly. A resurgence of support for the former President emerged as the impeachment trial reached the Senate, eventually leading to the President’s acquittal. Perhaps the clearest example of this is House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who expressed a cautious opposition to Trump, stating that “the President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters”.
Although a far cry from a direct call to impeach the President, this suggested a distinct desire to move away from his legacy. Yet, on 29th January, McCarthy held a meeting with Trump in Mar-a-Lago, centering around the GOP’s plans to take back the House in the 2022 midterms, plans that revolve around President Trump’s supposed popularity. This emphasises that however much the Republican elite may try to distance themselves from Trump’s divisive leadership, they cannot ignore the clear influence he has over the right-wing base.
The fact, even in the wake of a clear attack upon American democracy and one of the most divisive presidential terms in history, that many Republicans are reluctant to oppose Trump highlights just how much political power and influence over the GOP’s base he still has. With the 2022 midterms looming, many House representatives and senators who are up for election are fearful of publicly criticising Trump, understanding how crucial the support of his base could be in their re-election.
Marco Rubio’s sudden support of Trump and declaration that attempts to impeach the former President are ‘arrogant’, despite Trump’s frequent mockery of him as ‘Little Marco’, make a lot more sense once you realise that Ivanka Trump may be planning a Florida Senate run against Rubio. By showing a clear allegiance to Trump, Rubio is protecting his own chances of re-election, distinctly aware of the power of the former President to damage a political career, especially if Rubio were to be up against his own daughter.
Similarly, with the 2024 Presidential election on the horizon and no clear leadership replacement for Trump, several prominent Republicans are siding with the former President in the hopes that it will help them emulate his success in 2024. Ted Cruz best embodies this ambition.
Having previously called Trump ‘a pathological liar’ during their 2016 campaigns, Cruz has been one of the most ardent supporters of Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, being one of the former Presidents political allies sets him up as a potential successor to the Trumpism platform. This demonstrates the way in which the Republican Party cannot simply denounce Trump and move forward. Instead, individual representatives are acutely aware of the influence he has over their re-election and the dire consequences of speaking out against the former President.
But there is also another possibility: Trump runs again in 2024. On 28th February in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump stated that “the incredible journey we began together four years ago is far from over”, suggesting that he isn’t going to simply disappear from American politics quietly. Yet, he also made it clear that he isn’t planning to start up a new political party, saying “we have the Republican Party. It’s going to unite and be stronger than ever before.” This adds another level of complexity to the situation that the GOP is currently in, making it even harder to distance themselves from the 45th President and his politics.
Ultimately, the Republican Party now faces a difficult choice in dictating which direction the party goes in next. Does it continue along the MAGA, conspiracy theory driven, Trump inspired path that is headed by representatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene? Or is it able to return to established ways of ‘politics as usual’, distancing itself from Trumpism and attempting to work alongside President Biden to create a reunited America?
In reality, the outcome will probably locate itself somewhere in the middle; a balance between more traditional politics, free from the constant controversies that characterised the last four years, whilst never fully untangling itself from the legacy of Donald Trump, aware of the consequences and political backlash caused by doing so.
Perhaps with the 2022 midterms looming in the distance, and the race towards the 2024 presidential election, a more decisive direction will emerge under a new figurehead. For now, however, Trumpism seems as if it’s here to stay.