Commentary: After Trump, what future awaits the US Republican Party?
The Republican Party has a huge and energetic pro-Trump base that controls its grassroots machinery, says a US politics professor.
SYDNEY: In the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, seven out of 50 Republican senators voted to convict the former president of inciting insurrection. This has raised more questions than it has answered about where the Republican Party is going.
It still looks like Trump’s party, but for how long? Bill Cassidy, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump, says Trump’s power over the party will “wane”.
He will certainly hope so. The Republican Party of Louisiana has already censured Cassidy for his disloyalty to Trump.
On the other hand, Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top allies, believes Trump and his supporters are so important to the future of the party that Republicans should nominate his daughter-in-law to replace retiring Senator Richard Burr (who voted to convict).
Some in the party see Trump as a major liability who will only get more toxic. He is the first president since 1932 to oversee the loss of the White House and both houses of Congress in a single term.
Joe Biden got the highest vote share of any presidential challenger since 1932 in the highest-turnout election since 1900, earning 7 million more votes than Trump. However much Trump energised his supporters, he energised more of his opponents.
Despite all this, Republicans came within 90,000 votes of winning both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2020. Many Republicans believe Trump is an electoral asset who helped them outperform expectations and narrow the Democrats’ margins nationwide.
Unlike in 2012, there won’t be a Republican Party autopsy of the election defeat. Large numbers of Republicans doubt the outcome of the election, and most of the party’s legislators are unwilling to tell them otherwise.
In any case, the party went in the opposite direction from the path of moderation that the last autopsy recommended, and within four years they were back in control of the whole federal government.
So what might the future hold?
REPUBLICAN PARTY UNLIKELY TO SPLIT
The Republican Party has a huge and energetic pro-Trump base that controls the grassroots machinery of the party. It also represents a formidable primary voting bloc.
It has a much smaller but high-profile faction that wants to leave Trump behind, with significant representation among legislators, donors and media commentators.
For now, the two sides are stuck with each other.
In the past few weeks, figures on both sides have threatened to form new parties if they can’t control the direction of the GOP.
These threats have quickly evaporated. The most a new conservative party could achieve is to damage the electoral prospects of Republicans (something Trump might have contemplated in the face of the impeachment threat).
The American electoral system, which is winner-takes-all from top to bottom, is notoriously unforgiving to would-be third parties. Even people who feel alienated from their own parties are better off staying and fighting for power rather than forming a new party, which would never get anywhere near power.
It has been more than 160 years since divisions over slavery destroyed major parties in the United States. The Republican and Democratic parties have survived since the Civil War despite numerous fractures and even violent conflicts.
Congressional outcasts occasionally defect to the other major party. But, more often, members at odds with their party eventually retire and are replaced by new members more closely aligned with its direction.
This process is one of the factors leading to the current polarisation of Congress.
MODERATES BEING POLICED MORE HARSHLY THAN EXTREMISTS
Newly elected representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has become the focus of concerns about right-wing extremism in the Republican Party. Greene has a long history of amplifying dangerous conspiracy theories on social media.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned that “loony lies and conspiracy theories” are “a cancer for the Republican Party and our country”.
Greene fired back: “The real cancer for the Republican Party is weak Republicans who only know how to lose gracefully. This is why we are losing our country.”
House Democrats moved to strip Greene of her membership of congressional committees after Republican leader Kevin McCarthy refused to discipline her.
Greene has been forced to back down from her support of QAnon and some conspiracy theories that congressional Republicans consider beyond the pale.
But Greene’s central conspiratorial grievance – that Trump was robbed of a rightful victory in the 2020 election – is an article of faith and a politically energising force for much of the Republican base. Trump raised US$255 million dollars off it in the weeks after the election.
Many Republicans in Congress acquiesced to the “stolen election” fantasy, some with the excuse that they are faithfully representing their constituents. Even McConnell waited weeks before acknowledging Biden’s victory.
Republicans who openly acknowledged Biden’s victory and dismissed claims of widespread election fraud faced anger and censure from state party organisations, as well as from Trump himself. Republicans who backed impeachment saw immediate retribution, and will almost certainly have to defeat well-supported primary challengers in the future.
The historical willingness of American conservatives to police extremism has been overstated. It doesn’t matter that Trump and Greene are poison to the larger electorate. Neither election losses nor the stigma of “extremism” are enough to kill right-wing political movements in America.
Accepting the Republican nomination in 1964, Barry Goldwater declared that “extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”. Goldwater went on to one of the largest electoral defeats in history, but within 15 years his movement, led by Ronald Reagan, had thoroughly conquered the Republican Party, taken the White House and reshaped American political culture.
Trump’s followers have similar ambitions.
TOUGH TO PULL OFF ‘TRUMPISM’ WITHOUT TRUMP
No one knows yet what role Trump will play in future Republican politics. His recent attack on McConnell suggests he at least wants to continue to punish Republicans he sees as disloyal.
The possibility Trump could run again will make politics awkward for Republicans eager to claim his mantle for their own presidential ambitions.
The prospect of “Trumpism without Trump” has enticed conservatives and worried liberals ever since the Trump phenomenon began. Republicans have learned to rail against “globalism” and the “deep state”. They are unlikely to return to comprehensive immigration reform any time soon.
Trump has breathed new life into old conservative staples such as law and order and the perils of socialism. But Trump’s relationship with his supporters goes far beyond his political positions, or even the grievances and emotions he harnessed.
Trump’s appeal was based on the perception that he had unique gifts that no politician ever had. He cultivated a media image that made him synonymous, however incorrectly, with business success.
His tireless verbal output, whether through Twitter or at endless rallies, created an alternative reality for his followers. Many saw him as chosen by God.
That kind of charismatic magic will be extremely difficult for any career politician to recapture. Republicans may discover that Trumpism is not a political movement but a business model, a model only ever designed for one benefactor.
Listen to Prof Chan Heng Chee and BowerGroupAsia Managing Director James Carouso explain how America came to be so deeply divided amid a bitterly fought election on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast episode published in November 2020:
David Smith is Associate Professor in American Politics and Foreign Policy at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.