The GOP: A Future without Trump? | Daniel Hawker
Following former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 Election results as legitimate and the January 6th storming of the Capitol, several former members of George W. Bush’s Administration made public their desertion of the GOP, which they labelled as “the cult of Trump”.
Whilst clearly meant as a jab at the Trump-oriented hivemind the Republican Party has become, it couldn’t be any truer. The Trump legacy, fuelled by the man himself, has continued to dominate the hearts and minds of much of the GOP’s voter base, and much of the party establishment. Take this for example: a CNBC survey found that 74% of Republicans want him to remain active in politics, with 48% wanting said activity to be as head of the Republican Party. This sort of internal party-popularity for a recent president isn’t uncommon, with many having established themselves as major players following their departure from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Following the end of his second term in 1989, Ronald Reagan remained (and still does today) an iconic figure amongst Republicans and those on the American Right. Looking at the Democrats, even in the 2020 Election, the party still seemed under the soft control of Barack Obama (although this can be boiled down to Biden’s promise to continue the moderate pragmatism of the Obama-Biden years).
Trump’s stranglehold on the party can be further seen in the ratio of those House Republicans who voted to impeach him in February 2021 (10) compared to those voted against (211). Despite being opposed and disliked by many high-ranking Republicans during his time in office, a notable example being 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Trump enjoys open support from the majority of the Republican elite (including Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham), with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stating he’d ‘absolutely’ support Trump as the 2024 Republican Nominee, arguing it should be a ‘wide-open race’. Despite inciting an insurrection against the very tenants of democracy and being the only president to be impeached twice, it is undeniable, at least currently, to speak about the Republican Party without also recognising the influence and presence Donald Trump still very much wields over both officials and the Republican base – as his son Donald Trump Jr. Said at the January 6 rally, “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (a sentiment reflected in polls: 54% of Republicans would back Trump in the primary).
Donald Trump remains the kingmaker of the party, with not even two impeachments and a re-election defeat having quelled Republican voters’ enthusiasm for his particular brand of politics. Indeed, many see the fact he’s only served one term as being to Mr Trump’s advantage – they feel as if he has certain ‘unfinished business’ that he must attend to, which include the battles he began over immigration, foreign policy, trade with China and the power and influence of the Big Tech companies.
With such stark divisions between the ‘Pro-Trumpers’ and so-called ‘Never-Trumpers’, policy differences have raised the question of whether the Republican party is on track to splinter, with one faction sticking with Trumpism and the other focusing on traditional conservative values such as small government and deficit reduction. It seems plausible that, in this political landscape and with Donald Trump in the equation, a party founded and led by the former president would indeed be a welcome alternative for many of his die-hard supporters, many of whom initially supported him in 2016 because of his opposition to the party elites in Washington.
Looking back in time for any historical examples, we come across the Whig Party in the 1850s. Founded on the principles of American traditionalist conservatism (and taking much influence from thinkers such as Aristotle and Burke), following their decisive loss in the 1852 elections and their failure in developing an effective campaign platform, the party began to come apart. However, the true conflict that destroyed its foundations was over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which repealed the Missouri Compromise, therefore giving states the power to choose for themselves whether or not to allow the practice of slavery within its borders. Opposition to the Act in the northern states resulted in the formation of a plethora of coalition organisations, with two in Michigan and Wisconsin going on to name label themselves as the ‘Republican Party’, who favoured preventing the extension of slavery as an institution.
However, despite historical precedent in the form of the Whigs and widespread support amongst Trump’s fanbase (46% of Republicans claim they’d abandon the GOP to join a new ‘Trump Party’), the view of political analysts is that a full split in the image of the Whigs is unlikely due to a variety of different factors and reasons, the primary one being how unsuccessful third parties tend to be in America’s electoral system. The most this new party could realistically achieve would be splitting the conservative vote and aiding Biden and the Democrats. It remains that, in contemporary American politics, even those who feel alienated, rejected and abandoned from their own parties are better off remaining and continuing the internal fight to perhaps affect the structure rather than break off and form a new party, which is unlikely to really get anywhere.
Much of the recent discussion and debate surrounding former President Trump’s future role in the Republican Party arose as a result of a speech he gave in late February at the Conservative Action Political Conference, or CPAC. In a room sprawling with his cheering (non-mask wearing) supporters, Trump boasted how he might “beat the Democrats for a third time”, hinting at him running in 2024, and also used the event to elaborate on his self-made ideology of ‘Trumpism’ (which I view to simply to be right-wing authoritarianism, with aspects of neo-fascism). Traditionally a proving ground for ambitious Republicans aiming for higher office, Donald Trump used CPAC to reaffirm his concrete place within the American conservative movement, clearly having no plans to leave politics anytime soon. As Sen. Ted Cruz put it, “Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere”.
All this leaves the question of Trump’s role in the Republican Party of the 2020s. With the predictions for the Republican primary in 2024 remaining healthily pro-Trump and him having opened the GOP up to more working-class voters, it seems on the face of it that he’d be a good man to have stick around, with his fierce, loyal and passionate bloc of supporters.
Looking forward the to the 2022 Midterms and the 2024 General Election, even if Trump voluntarily left the GOP, or was somehow forcibly removed, he’s still promised to recruit and support primary challengers against Never-Trump Republicans, proving he can easily remain a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment. A solid strategy it would seem for the Republicans, would be to remain on good terms with the former president, if only to ensure his continued influence and sway over Republican lawmakers benefits them in next year’s midterm elections. Indeed, it even appears that Trump approve of this idea: Sen. Rick Scott, the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said:
“The president has promised to be helpful … make sure we get back the majority in the Senate … and I’m going to help him”.
With the Democrats currently holding a federal trifecta, a strategic alliance such as this one could prove vital to the Republicans regaining some political control. However, this would mean the GOP continues to be associated with the brutish and ugly politics of Trumpism, an ideology many conservatives reject, wanting a return to a less-authoritarian party platform.
The Republican fault lines go in every direction: between the grassroots and the establishment, between big donors and aspiring presidential candidates, between House leaders and Senate leaders. The former president has allowed many prominent members of the Grand Old Party to reveal uglier sides to their personalities, safe in the knowledge that there were many who agreed with them. The 2nd Impeachment trial showed just how stark the internal divisions within the party are: between those who support traditional conservative values and democratic norms, and the radical ideologues who support Trump and his authoritarian style.
It appears at present, that for any Republican to have any success with the majority of the voter base, they must, as the New York Times put it, be:
“friendly enough to Mr. Trump to be acceptable to his supporters yet softer in tone and closer to the traditional Republican establishment of foreign policy”.
Whilst the former president maintains a comfortable lead in the majority of polls conducted thus far of the GOP base, certain figures have continued to pop up as 2024 Trump-alternatives, including former US Ambassador to the U.N. Nicki Haley. (a firm critic of Trump throughout his 2016 campaign).
The GOP must reject the influence and support of this vindictive and despotic figure, who’ll only continue to spread his ideology to the remaining Donald-free zones of the party ranks, poisoning it against the Democrats, as well as the concepts of the gracious loser and respecting American democracy. He may command an army of supporters, but he and they have strayed away from Republican ideals, and only serve as a malignant tumour, spreading and destroying. I want to see the Republicans return to being a more competent and professional party, one focused on building bridges across the aisle and supporting democracy, and the first step in doing so is to exterminate the cancer that is Donald John Trump.
This may not be a possibility until after 2024, or even beyond then, but when the Republicans are rid of him, it will be a good day for the Grand Old Party.