The After Party: Trump, the GOP, and Where They Go From Here
Former President Donald Trump transformed American politics and the American presidency. He was the first president with no history of public service, the first reality television star president, and the first president to be impeached twice. But within his own party, Trump is defined less by the norm-shattering nature of his presidency and more by the intra-party revolution he cultivated. As he rose to greater power, the GOP was redefined; pushed further to the right with a new, more radical base. Now, the party is fracturing while deciding whether to continue appeasing that base with Trumpism or return to the status quo.
A minority of Republicans have tried to separate themselves from Trump, and even fewer have fully denounced him. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump in last month’s impeachment trial, and though Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voted to acquit the former president, he said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking [the January 6th Capitol riot],” and that “[the rioters] did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth because he was angry he had lost an election.” Among Republicans who have disavowed Trump are Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), who voted to convict and impeach, respectively. Those who critique Trump face harsh backlash from within their party and base, including being censured.
Cheney was almost ousted from her position as chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus for her vote to impeach Trump. In an anonymous vote, House Republicans chose to keep Cheney in her leadership role with only 61 Republicans voting for a resolution asking her to step down, and 145 against it. While the majority of her colleagues voted to keep her in power, few will defend her on the record or make their vote public.
Despite heavy backlash, Cheney has remained steadfast in her condemnation of Trump, and her belief that the party should be moving away from Trumpism. “Somebody who has provoked an attack on the United States capital to prevent the counting of electoral votes, which resulted in five people dying, who refused to stand up immediately when he was asked and stop the violence, that — that is a person who does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward,” Cheney told Chris Wallace in an appearance on Fox News Sunday on February 7th, 2021.
Other established Republicans have come to Trump’s defense throughout the impeachment trial and departure from the presidency, and don’t seem to be abandoning Trumpism soon. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) went on Fox News February 14th, 2021 to discuss Trump’s acquittal, and scold those within the Republican party who have spoken out against Trump, including McConnell. Graham said McConnell’s speech will cost Republicans in 2022 and aid Democrats’ campaign advertisements. Graham also expressed the sentiment that McConnell was nearly alone in this position, telling Fox News host Chris Wallace, “I think his speech is an outlier regarding how Republicans feel about all this.”
With minimal push within the Republican party to move away from Trumpism, a large faction has capitalized on the populist movement and built their political careers by fully aligning themselves with Trump; like freshman congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO). Both women rose to prominence for their total allegiance to President Trump, strong belief in the second amendment, and peddling of QAnon conspiracy theories that ranged from election fraud to, in Greene’s case, ‘Jewish space lasers cause wildfires’. Because of these conspiracies and past comments, Greene was removed from her two assigned congressional committees by the House in a vote passed by Democrats and 11 Republicans on February 4th, 2021, only a month after being sworn into office.
Despite Greene’s demotion and public denouncement from within her own party, she represents a growing base on the right; one that Trump defined and mobilized. This base led Trump to receive over 74 million votes—more than any other sitting president—and most still largely support him, the majority even insisting he is the true winner of the 2020 presidential election. 40% of Trump voters say he “definitely” won the election, an additional 36% say he “probably” won, and only 7% fully concede that Biden won. If Republicans don’t appeal to these supporters, it’s likely Trump himself will, further dwindling any hope for a more moderate Republican Party.
Trump remains a popular and powerful figure within the American Right. Since leaving office, he’s toyed with the idea of starting a new political party, is potentially working with free-speech social media platform Parler, and now, with his second impeachment acquittal, is eligible to run for President again in 2024. Trump Sr. isn’t the only Trump poised for political power. In his February 14th Fox News interview, Graham also alluded to the potential of the former president’s daughter-in-law running for the United States Senate in North Carolina. With Richard Burr not seeking re-election and his recent surprise vote to impeach Trump, Graham pointed out an interesting opportunity for Ms. Trump. “My friend Richard Burr just made Lara Trump almost the certain nominee for the Senate seat in North Carolina to replace him if she runs,” Graham said. A February poll led by Axios and Survey Monkey had both Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump high on Republican voters’ wishlist for 2024 presidential candidates.
The Republican party is held hostage with the likelihood of Trump and his family regaining actual political power and the reality of them maintaining significant influence. Only a few of its members have dared to challenge Trumpism, and risk re-election when they do. Millions of Americans have hitched their wagons to Donald Trump. Until that changes, much of the GOP will be forced to do the same. Where he brings them is anyone's guess.