Where do Republicans go from here?

Trump has never put party first, but breaking up won’t be easy

President Donald Trump still has plenty of defenders in the Republican Party, and in the near future at least, an intraparty war will rage between his supporters and those who want to move on, Gonzales writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump still has plenty of defenders in the Republican Party, and in the near future at least, an intraparty war will rage between his supporters and those who want to move on, Gonzales writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 14, 2021 at 4:12pm

ANALYSIS — If I didn’t write about the future of the Republican Party within the next 12 hours, my political analyst card would have been revoked. I don’t make the rules, I’m just trying to abide by them. So here are some thoughts on the state of the union between Republicans and President Donald Trump. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, the thought of 10 GOP House members voting to impeach Trump would have been unfathomable. Now some Republicans, including outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, appear eager to begin the next chapter of the GOP without him. Unsurprisingly, that is not going to be that easy. 

Even before the invasion of the U.S. Capitol, the GOP’s messy transition (or divorce) from Trump looked inevitable. I wrote about it nearly two years ago in CQ Roll Call, “Republicans have a post-Trump identity crisis on the horizon.” I didn’t, however, let my normally optimistic mind wander to what happened last week. 

Loading the player...

A complicated coalition

Just one of the reasons why so many Republicans continue to stick with the president is because, to them, he is successful, whether it’s in business prior to his election or his performance in office. Even Republicans who admit Trump lost envy his populist coalition and his gains with minority voters in the last election. 

But Republicans want to inherit the populist party Trump built while ignoring the reality that the people who invaded the Capitol and killed a police officer are part of that coalition as well. In other words, every Trump supporter is not an insurrectionist, but the insurrectionists are Trump supporters.

That understanding is critical because the Republican Party needs every voter it can get. The current GOP coalition wasn’t large enough to win the White House, the House or control of the Senate. Without the most extreme elements of the party, the coalition would be smaller and Republicans would be even harder pressed to get back into power. 

Those Trump supporters who did enter the Capitol and commit criminal acts also risk dividing the Republican Party. 

More than four years ago, I talked with loyalty expert James Kane about how the Trump coalition might break apart. He said, “In any cult or loyal following, fractures can occur when the followers become disillusioned by the leader. But more often, it is their awareness of their fellow followers that causes them to pull away.”

Today, some Trump voters are considering whether they want to be affiliated with the Trump supporter who beat a police officer with an American flag on the steps of the Capitol or the Trump supporters roaming the halls with a Confederate flag or Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt. The Jan. 6 mob attack provided key visuals of the Trump coalition that will be played on loop for months to come. It’s unclear, however, whether Trump supporters in a conservative media bubble are seeing the most graphic videos and images.

Even if the Trump coalition stays together, it’s far from clear it is transferable. 

Republicans have benefited when Trump is on the ballot, but the president’s voters did not turn out at the same rate in the 2018 midterm elections and the GOP suffered significant losses. It’s not a new dynamic. President Barack Obama struggled to turn out his coalition in his two midterm elections. 

The Republicans’ challenge, however, is more complicated than turnout. While Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (and others) think they are going to take the reins of Trump’s populist movement, it won’t be so easy. 

Some Trump supporters hate Republican politicians as much as they hate Democrats. Some of them wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence. Others hate McConnell, in part because he’s married to Elaine Chao, the Asian American former secretary of Transportation. I’m not sure those voters will just slide in behind an Ivy League-educated senator to replace their champion businessman.

Trump’s relevance

“This gathering should send a message to them: This isn’t their Republican Party anymore! This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!” said Donald Trump Jr., calling out disloyal Republicans at the Jan. 6 rally, before the march to the Capitol. 

He’s right. 

Any discussion about the future of the GOP has to include what the party has become over the last five years: primarily a following of a person.

That’s not to cast judgement on what’s happened within the GOP; people are free to do whatever they want with their party. It’s just reality. Rather than adhering to a list of core issues and values, the primary litmus test for Republicans in the last four years has been whether someone is sufficiently supportive of Trump. 

He’s cemented himself as the leader of the GOP with a coalition of people who like his outsider background, revel in how he attacks the media and Democrats, and are grateful for his judicial appointments.

Trump has also exercised his influence over elected Republicans through fear. Up until now, GOP members have been wary of crossing the president to avoid him personally attacking them or, more importantly, losing the backing of his supporters whom they need to get elected. 

Since Jan. 6, that political fear has expanded to physical fear, as described by freshman Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan. “My colleague told me that efforts to overturn the election were wrong, and that voting to certify was a constitutional duty. But my colleague feared for family members, and the danger the vote would put them in. Profoundly shaken, my colleague voted to overturn,” Meijer wrote in The Detroit News

What about those primaries?

Even out of office, Trump (and his family) have threatened to wield power against Republicans who didn’t adequately support him. 

“Any senator or any congressman that does not fight tomorrow … their political career is, is over,” said Eric Trump on Fox News the day before the march. “My father has created the greatest political movement in American history. I’m telling you they will get primaried the next time around and they will lose, if they don't stand up and show some backbone and show some conviction.”

Based on the president’s popularity among base voters, this sounds like a significant threat. But there are just so many questions about Trump’s power and relevance before we get to 2022. 

What happens next week and how does the president react? What do the final findings of the investigation into Jan. 6 look like? How does Trump behave post-presidency? How does he handle the inevitable legal challenges? Can he create and maintain a political operation? What kind of platform does he have to communicate with supporters?

We have to remember that Republicans handed the keys of their party to someone who doesn’t care about the party. The GOP was a vehicle for Trump to get to where he wanted to go. Republicans used him to achieve some long-term goals, including tax cuts and three Supreme Court justices. 

With Trump, it’s never “party first.” Recently in Georgia, on the eve of the two most important Senate elections in history, the president was more focused on whether Sen. Kelly Loeffler was going to support him or not in the Electoral College count, not on what he needed to do to help her win a state he had lost two months prior. 

“He told Kelly Loeffler before he landed in Georgia for a final rally on Monday that if she didn’t back the Electoral College challenges, he would ‘do a number on her’ from the stage, according to a source familiar with the events,” according to Eliana Johnson in Politico’s Playbook

Trump only cares about the party to the extent that it helps him. He doesn’t care about who represents South Dakota in the Senate, but he does care whether John Thune is for him or against him.

That could actually be good news for the GOP moving forward, if they move forward and ban Trump from holding public office in the future. Without the possibility of running again, Trump doesn’t have a reason to care about the Republican Party, so why would he stay involved? Spite and revenge are powerful motivators with Trump, who loves to hold grudges, but I doubt he’d have the attention span necessary to focus on defeating incumbents around the country if there wasn’t a direct line to helping him in the future. 

If Republicans don’t ban him, then Trump has an incentive to continue to mold the party in his image. 

The next chapter

At least in the near future, there will be a war between part of the Republican Party who wants to remain loyal to Trump and the other part that wants to move on. The House impeachment vote was a prime example. Reconfirming Trump-ally Ronna McDaniel to lead the Republican National Committee was another.

While some Republican elected officials are trying to back away from Trump after years of supporting or justifying him, other Republicans are still defending him. And overall, the president and his party have cultivated a group of voters who are not so easily persuaded. For now, Republican elected officials have little to no influence on changing the minds of their base, which is still loyal to Trump. 

Not only are some Republicans determined to defend Trump, they want to follow him down a path that has led the party out of power. That’s another consequence of believing that the election was stolen and that Trump has harnessed a magical political formula.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.