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Apple '21: Republicans fall out of line

With former President Donald Trump’s term as president finally at its end, many are now examining where the Republican Party, a party almost completely co-opted by Trump, can go from here. Republicans on Capitol Hill have discussed the need to move on from the Trump presidency, and Trump’s favorability is falling even among members of the Republican Party. Some now even expect that, just like in 2009 — when Republicans began to pretend they had never supported Bush and instead started the Tea Party movement — the party will rid itself of Trump. This is a flawed interpretation of the situation, one that misunderstands Trump’s hold over the party, and more importantly, over its base. Rather than moving on from Trump, the party will continue to embrace him in order to appease his supporters, both in and out of Congress, leading to a real chance of a GOP civil war and continued Republican losses at the ballot box.

By the end of his presidency, George W. Bush sat at an approval rating of 34 percent as the architect of unpopular wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and presider over an economy in recession. Rather than rallying behind him, some Republicans created a movement of small government, deficit hawks known as the Tea Party, and pushed the party away from Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” to the right. Bush was almost completely ostracized from the GOP, and the Republican Party was able to rid itself of Bush’s status as a truly terrible president convicted by international tribunals for committing crimes against peace. Recently, Bush has even been largely absolved of this status, in part due to his perceived favorability juxtaposed against Trump. In the past few weeks, since the attack on the Capitol, low polling numbers and public statements from some Republicans indicate that Trump will be cast out as well. However, a deeper look illustrates the numerous differences between the situations.

First of all, the Republican base remains behind Trump. Even the most pessimistic polls for Trump predict he has a 40 percent chance of winning the Republican primary in 2024, and 64 percent of Republicans support him. But even these numbers are misleading, as they likely underestimate the true extent of Trump’s support. While many claim that polls are wrong, or that “shy Trump voters” exist, neither of those explanations are likely correct in this case. As Ann Selzer, perhaps the best pollster in the nation, argues, while “shy Trump voters” do not exist, polls do have a nonresponse bias. In short, Trump voters aren’t lying to pollsters, but they are just less likely to answer polls, conditioned as they are by Trump to distrust them. The Republicans who do answer polls are more likely to be somewhat opposed to Trump. Thus, arguably a vast majority of the Republican Party, even more than data illustrates, is still behind Trump.

Republican constituents are not alone in their support for Trump. Many politicians continue to stand by him, either because of a fear of a primary challenge or because they are true believers. More than half of House Republicans opposed the certification of the Electoral College, even after the assault on the Capitol. And on Jan. 19, more than half of Republicans signed onto an effort to remove Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney, from her position as the third most powerful in the House Republican caucus because she voted to impeach Trump. Even if we ignore the irony of a Cheney choosing the side of good, and being punished by Republicans for it, her gamble to paint herself as the leader of the anti-Trump wing (and the next Speaker should the Republicans abandon Trump) appears to have backfired. Republicans generally are in lockstep with Trump, as they see their fortunes tied to his.

While Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Jim “Gym” Jordan, Ted Cruz and other fervent supporters often make the headlines for their dedication to the former president, far more entrenched and powerful Republican politicians are behind him as well. Rick Scott, who voted to block the electoral certification in Pennsylvania, is also the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate campaign arm. While he is far from the only person in charge of recruiting candidates for 2022 Senate races for the Republican Party, it is telling that a propagator of the Big Lie and supporter of Trump holds that position. While Tom Emmer, Scott’s House counterpart, opposed Republican’s anti-democratic efforts to overturn the election, his caucus is clearly more on the side of Trump than any remaining “establishment” GOP members.

Trump, unlike other former presidents, will not cede the limelight once out of office. As someone typically self-aggrandizing and accustomed to playing kingmaker, Trump will continue to exert his influence as the de facto leader of the Republican Party. He has already called for primaries to Brian Kemp and John Thune, and he will likely continue to support Republicans who bend over backward for him. In addition, his children and family might begin to try their own fortunes in political office, with Ivanka considering a Senate run in Florida, and Lara Trump, Eric’s wife, planning a Senate run in North Carolina. These connections will give Trump even more reason to remain in the public eye and steer the GOP as he sees fit. Bitter Republican primaries, where politicians must carefully straddle the line between regaining suburban voters they lost in 2020 and appealing to the sizable part of their base that votes for Republicans because of Trump, will likely ensue.

While Trump’s hold on the Republican Party has been helpful for it in many ways, his continued grip after he is gone can only hurt it. Republicans have been at their strongest in the Trump era when he was on the ballot; he juices turnout among white working-class voters, even as his rhetoric alienates suburban ones. However, when he is off the ballot, Republicans suffer from their association with him, and lose the benefits of the Trump turnout effect, as evidenced by 2018, 2019 and 2021. If the party remains tethered to Trump, and all signs seem to suggest it will, not only will moderates continue to leave the party, as a few thousand Republicans in Arizona have already done, but more extreme candidates will successfully primary incumbents or win Republican primaries. For example, in Pennsylvania, where Republicans are more behind Trump, more extreme candidates like Doug Mastriano (who attended the Capitol riots) would have an easier time winning the primary, making it more likely that a Democrat captures the seat by attracting the moderate suburban voter disillusioned by Trump-like fringe candidates. This will be true in elections across the country in 2021 and 2022, and leaves Republicans in trouble, even in a midterm year that historically would be somewhat favorable for them.

State parties in pivotal states have also signified their support for Trump. Kelli Ward, chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party and never one for moderation, is planning on censuring Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake and Doug Ducey, Republicans who have exhibited moderate tendencies or opposition to Trump. This trend is similar in other states. In Texas, the party chair is waging a war against the speaker of the state house and the governor, in part for not being Trump-y enough, and members of the Georgia Republican Party have been quick to attack Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensberger, the governor and secretary of state, for their lack of zeal in defending the former president’s lies. 

Unlike Bush, whose legacy incited a reactionary, insurgent GOP movement, Trump himself has created the movement, ensuring that after he has left office, it will continue. And as it has shown, the Trump formula without Trump himself is a poor electoral strategy. Republicans, who have gleefully supported Trump for the past four years, either because of his electoral power or because of their true belief in his message, must now decide how to navigate an increasingly polarized Republican Party. And new threats arise every day: Trump is now floating the idea of a new party, the “Patriot Party.” Absent ranked-choice voting, this would split the Republican Party, in effect making the Democratic Party the dominant one in perpetuity. Even if Trump stays in the Republican Party, the GOP will have to reckon with his influence, and will likely experience infighting far greater than anything we’ve seen in decades. Trump’s worst tendencies have terrorized the country for years on end, but perhaps now that he is gone from the presidency, it will be the GOP that finally reaps what it has sowed.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at caleb_apple@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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