The Republican Party Is (Still) the Party of Trump

Samuel Rubinstein 11 January 2021
Image Credits: Pixabay

For the last few years I’ve felt a strong urge to bang my head against a wall whenever I encounter the headline ‘The Republican Party is the party of Trump’, or variants thereof. So I don’t blame you if your head now hurts. You have, in all likelihood, read plenty of articles on this subject before: they are all more or less the same, and they are all incredibly boring. I resolved never to read articles with that headline back in 2017. Already, by then, the statement was so blindingly obvious to anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to American politics that anything attempting to pass it off as interesting was simply not worth the time and effort.

It wasn’t always that way. ‘Party of Trump’ only became fatuous after the dramatic conversion of Senator Lindsey Graham to the Trump cult, which I, like many others, took to be the definitive proof. In 2016 Graham refused even to vote for his party’s nominee: ‘I couldn’t go where Donald Trump wanted to take the USA & GOP’.[1] Trump, said Graham, was a ‘race-baiting bigot’, a ‘jackass’: he infamously tweeted that ‘if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed… and we will deserve it’.[2] Yet by the end of 2017, with a Republican trifecta assuaging Graham’s fears of political annihilation, he sycophantically defended Trump against the ‘endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president’.[3] His earlier stance must somehow have subconsciously seeped through; only a year earlier Graham said ‘I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office’.[4]

The metamorphosis of Lindsey Graham from Trump’s biggest critic to an obsequious toad was emblematic of a shift within the party. It would thus be legitimate to view his recent reversal away from the president as proof that the GOP has finally got over its nasty Trump phase. Videos of Graham hounded by Trump loyalists at Reagan Airport, being called a ‘traitor’, point to a revival of the 2016 chasm in the Republican Party between ‘the establishment’ and Trump’s fanatical base.[5]

The Republican establishment wants him to disappear because they know he is politically toxic. Having finally accepted that the 2020 election was in fact lost, they blame it on Trump’s personal defects; they think his antics cost the Republicans two senate seats in Georgia; and Trump’s horrifying barbarism was laid bare when he incited a putsch on the Capitol, putting American lawmakers at risk and taking the lives of five people, including Brian Sicknick, a police officer. This has hastened the return from the wilderness of a flurry of articles on how the Republican Party is no longer the party of Trump.[6] The question is contentious once more. Nature is healing.

In a poll by Michael Smerconish, 71 per cent of respondents said that, after Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January, the GOP will cease to be the party of Trump.[7] The characteristically optimistic Fareed Zakaria believes that the insurrection of 6 January marks the GOP’s final break from Trump.[8] This perspective makes a great deal of sense from a crude electoral standpoint: in the last four years, under Trump’s leadership, Republicans have lost the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Alas, politics does not always make sense.

Kevin McCarthy, who is set to succeed Nancy Pelosi as Speaker if the Republicans recapture the House, endorsed the conspiracy theory that the election was rigged – the Big Lie – hours after blood had been spilled in the Capitol Building.[9] In voting to oppose the certification of Biden’s electoral college victory, he was joined by 146 other House Republicans, each keenly representing their party’s interest back home.  Two days later Ronna McDaniel, a Trump quisling, was unanimously re-elected as leader of the Republican National Committee.[10]

Most pertinently, the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2024 remains Trump’s for the taking. Some plausible candidates – Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, for example – have staked their political futures on being Trump stalwarts, and wouldn’t dare run against him.  Even if Trump does not formally run, he will undoubtedly tease the country, keeping everyone guessing, which will prove frustrating for ambitious loyalists who are anxious not to step on his toes. Others, like Senator Ben Sasse and Vice President Mike Pence, have incurred the wrath of the Trump base for their perceived apostasy (it was for Pence, grimly, that the seditionists brought their gallows).[11] To millions of Republicans they are ‘RINOs’: Republicans In Name Only. [12]

I find it difficult to imagine Trump resisting the urge to run. It may well start as a tease, but once he has teased everyone, it will seem weak and cowardly (he will fear) not to follow through.

I find it difficult to imagine Trump resisting the urge to run. It may well start as a tease, but once he has teased everyone, it will seem weak and cowardly (he will fear) not to follow through. He will crave the limelight, and – more prosaically – campaign fundraising would help him to climb his way out of debt. Fox and Newsmax would have to compensate for Twitter. If he doesn’t run, one of his children probably will.

And Trump retains the loyalty of a sizeable chunk of the Republican base. 45 per cent of Republicans approve of the insurrection at the Capitol.[13] 78 per cent of Republicans still approve of him personally, a higher proportion than for Pence.[14] Any Republican politician seeking to be a serious contender for the nomination will, for his or her candidacy to be viable, undertake a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, humour the Big Lie, kneel before him, and kiss his ring.

My view here is grounded in the strong sense that we’ve been here before. The 6 January putsch was worse in every respect than the Access Hollywood tapes in 2016, but that also felt like the end of the line for Trump. The Republican leadership abandoned him en masse; there were calls to throw him off the ticket; but in the end, one by one, Republican politicians prostrated themselves before him, as though it had never happened.[15] They will fall in line, as they did in 2016, because even as he languishes in retirement it will still be dangerous to draw his opprobrium: he will keep a list of those who betrayed him, and he will champion primary challengers to all of them. He has already reportedly set his sights on those Republicans who recognised Biden’s victory a bit too early, including South Dakota Senator John Thune, Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.[16] Republican politicians, particularly in purplish states, must walk a tightrope: without Trump they’ll struggle in the primaries; with Trump they’ll struggle in the generals.

They will fall in line, as they did in 2016, because even as he languishes in retirement it will still be dangerous to draw his opprobrium: he will keep a list of those who betrayed him, and he will champion primary challengers to all of them.

Trump has swallowed the Republican Party, bones and all. Nothing else remains. The base is so fervently loyal to him that, even after it had been laughed out of court, the Big Lie is still deemed by many to be true. His supporters storming the Capitol and smearing their faeces in its hallowed corridors is a fitting end to the Trump presidency.[17] The floors of the Capitol have been cleaned and the stink has faded, but the fetid orange shit-stain on the Republican Party will not disappear so quickly.

Trump has swallowed the Republican Party, bones and all. Nothing else remains.

[1]https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2016/live-updates/general-election/real-time-updates-on-the-2016-election-voting-and-race-results/sen-lindsey-graham-i-voted-evan-mcmullin-for-president/
[2]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bkDykGhM8c; https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/republicans-lost-everything/617564/
[3]https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-media-attack-lindsey-graham-kook-unfit-office-video-backfires-a8087796.html
[4]https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/12/lindsey-graham-predicts-trump-will-become-shadow-president.html
[5]https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000007542653/graham-airport-capitol.html
[6]https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/trump-capitol-riots-republicans-gop-b1784550.html
[7]https://twitter.com/smerconish/status/1347890119408287747
[8]https://edition.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/01/10/exp-gps-0110-fareeds-take.cnn
[9]https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-01-08/opinion-kevin-mccarthy-hypocrisy-certification-trump-capitol; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html
[10]https://www.wsj.com/articles/gop-leader-mcdaniel-poised-for-re-election-as-party-weighs-post-trump-future-11610101804
[11]https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/10/hang-mike-pence-twitter-stops-phrase-trending-capitol-breach
[12]https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-06/pence-defies-trump-saying-he-has-no-power-to-reverse-defeat
[13]https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election-2020/republicans-congress-capitol-support-trump-b1783807.html
[14]https://morningconsult.com/2021/01/08/trump-approval-rating-capitol-riot-poll/
[15]https://www.google.com/search?q=tim+alberta+access+hollywood&rlz=1C5CHFA_enGB910GB910&oq=tim+alberta+access+hollywood&aqs=chrome..69i57j46j0l3j69i60l2j69i61.5040j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
[16]https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/10/trump-2024-campaign-456692
[17]https://nypost.com/2021/01/08/rioters-left-feces-urine-in-hallways-and-offices-during-mobbing-of-us-capitol/