He is no longer in office and still cannot tweet. But former President Donald Trump’s heavy influence on the Republican Party remains unbroken. What does that mean for the U.S.?
Along the mountainous roads that lead through West Virginia and Ohio, only a few shopping malls and suburbs away from Washington, D.C., it is still election season. More than a year after the presidential election was decided. The same goes for the store windows in small towns like Kalispell in northwestern Montana, or on ranch fences in Wyoming. Except that they made another choice. “TRUMP” signs are on display here. All across America one sees them, some a bit weathered, some still in pristine condition because they are new, because they already read “TRUMP 2024.”
For the half of the U.S. that is made up of Joe Biden voters, it is tempting to ignore these signs. To wish them away into backyards, into dark corners of the internet, and into the channels and pages from which the other half of the U.S. gets its information, to Fox News or Breitbart. It is tempting to dismiss the political debate over how robust democracy is and the country’s future as something that’s just part of the deal. Because after all, things turned out okay in the last election; because everything may not be perfect, but it is still okay. In daily life, the only annoyance may be that the neighbors have the “wrong” bumper sticker on their car, and we have to weigh invitations to a barbecue more carefully. And they hope through it all, that in 2024 everyone will have come to their senses and the Republicans will nominate a candidate whom they may not want to vote for, but who won’t lead the country to the edge of the precipice again.
But in fact, it is not that easy, even almost a year after Biden’s inauguration, which the country celebrated as an important day for democracy.
Donald Trump still has the greatest influence within the Republican Party. He is the party. “No one is able to change that right now, not even Mitch McConnell,” says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.* Schmitt, a political scientist, was an adviser to Ronald Reagan and served on part of John McCain’s presidential campaign. Republican Senate Minority Leader McConnell is one of the party’s most influential politicians. He is the strategist who works at blocking Biden’s programs in Congress. Whose tactical maneuvers allowed Trump to nominate three Supreme Court justices during his presidency. Who waited a bit before congratulating Biden on his election, although he did congratulate him eventually.
’They Are Afraid’
But McConnell still does not really appear willing to fundamentally question Trump’s influence in the party. It is never easy for a party to criticize a former president. But as long as you take a seat in the second row with your book contract and lecture tour, it’s not a big deal in everyday business.
Trump, too, has compiled an image-laden book about his time in the White House, which comes out this winter. Before Christmas, he also made a few appearances with former Fox News moderator Bill O’Reilly. But above all, he is staging campaign rallies, holding speeches, giving interviews and emailing followers about current politics. He has also founded his own media business, Trump Media & Technology Group. He wants to use it to spread his message uninterrupted and uncensored, beyond mainstream social networks that have banned him. His core message still centers on stories about the “big lie,” the stolen election. But the lie is not the stolen election; the lie is Trump’s “big lie” itself.
And McConnell, like most of the party, doesn’t interfere with the former president. “They’re scared,” Schmitt says.* The next election is never very far away in the U.S. Trump demonstrated how to mobilize the masses, most recently in the 2020 election that he lost. More than 74 million U.S. citizens voted for him. Only one president has ever received more votes, namely Biden, who won more than 81 million votes. The election demonstrated a capacity to mobilize on both sides of the political spectrum. Even though Trump lost, he is as good as untouchable in the party. “It was close enough, so the party is holding tight to him,” says Kyle Kondik in the nonpartisan newsletter, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, from the University of Virginia Center for Politics.*
If You’re Not for Him, You’re against Him
Liz Cheney has felt that sentiment most acutely. Her name stands for a hardcore conservatism; no one would ever consider ascribing progressive or even moderate tendencies to the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. But conservatism and Trumpism do not necessarily have all that much in common these days. Trump did not practice classic Republican politics; he did not concern himself with immovable positions because he created his own. Just like he and his followers created their own truth after the election. Cheney did not subscribe to this truth and voted, along with some other, less well-known voices in the party, to impeach Trump for the second time in proceedings which the Democrats initiated after the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” Cheney said.
Cheney did not remain silent, and her own party punished her for it. She is seeking reelection next year, something which normally would be a formality for her in her home state of Wyoming. Last year, she received approximately 69% percent of the vote. But she now has several opponents in the Republican primary and Trump has already chosen his favorite, lawyer Harriet Hageman.
If you’re not for Trump, you’re against him. That is the clear line in the sand that the former president is still drawing regardless of whether he actually runs for reelection in 2024. The party is subordinating this decision to everything else right now. For Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute, this is the next drama to come after four years of Trump’s presidency. “The Republican Party legitimates Trump’s claim of election fraud and that is terrible for the party, terrible for the country, and will cause problems well beyond the short-term election calculus of the people who are promulgating this crisis,” says Schake, a Republican, who like Schmitt, was active on McCain’s presidential campaign team and has worked in the Defense Department and the State Department.*
Schake’s remarks were made before documents became public in mid-December, documents that Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, passed on to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States. They address ideas on how to prevent Biden’s election before Congress was to certify it, including calling a national state of emergency and declaring all electronic votes invalid. A nightmare for any democracy. The United States as a national authoritarian state is no longer an absurd fantasy. “Our Constitution is still by and large good; the problem is the political system,” Schmitt said.*
’His Anger at Anti-Trump Intellectuals’
The party is not only legitimatizing its former president’s lie, which at this point is accepted as fact by most of the party’s supporters. Republicans are also working on legislation in states that they control to gain questionable advantages. According to the Voting Rights Lab, there are currently efforts to restrict voting access in 47 states. These include a controversial electoral reform policy that has already gone into effect in Texas, a policy the Justice Department is suing Texas over because the department asserts it will disproportionately affect minority, and thus Democratic, voters.
The Republicans have always had an easier time prioritizing power and their hold on it. But the blatant lies, conspiracy theories and laws that are at least suspected of being anti-democratic—that is new. Conservative intellectuals, according to Schake and Schmitt, have no place in today’s Grand Old Party. That is yet another thing the party has lost.
Regardless of whether Trump really runs again or someone else does, “… and who wants a copy when we still have the original,” as Schmitt says, Trump’s playbook is here to stay. Schake is more optimistic. “I think it’s incorrect to believe that if Trump runs, no other, stronger candidate will run, too.”* The gubernatorial election in Virginia showed that a candidate can win with an appealing platform. In November, Glenn Youngkin won the state governor’s race against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Whereas McAuliffe evoked Trump as the enemy in every campaign appearance, Youngkin did not appear with the former president. That did not mean, however, that Youngkin did not use Trump’s strategies and run a campaign based on identity politics – for instance, the question of what content should be taught in schools and Youngkin’s views on equality.
The Democrats’ Concern
But this last important election before the midterm elections next November was a signal on several levels. The Democrats’ concern that they will lose one or both houses of Congress is justified. Even though Virginia is not a traditionally Democratic state, it is demographically becoming increasingly more Democratic, which is why the Democrats had hoped for a victory. At the same time, the conservatives may have discovered a second route to success, made possible for them by the Democrats, in addition to the districts and states in which Trumpism works.
Even if Biden was the most moderate Democratic candidate for president, the party has moved to the left under his administration. That offers conservatives a chance among voters who no longer feel comfortable among the Democrats or who primarily voted for Biden because he wasn’t Trump. “The U.S. still has one of the most conservative voting populations in the Western world,” Kondik said.*
The Lie about a Better America
Still, the populist base is far from willing to support the conservative party if it distances itself from Trump. Thus, one of Trump’s favorite ways to insult someone is to call them a RINO, a Republican in Name Only. The true Republicans are those who support him. And he turns every victory into a victory for his “Make America Great Again” movement. “I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you, he would not have been close to winning,” Trump wrote after Virginia’s gubernatorial election in November. “The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before.” Trump may no longer be able to share those sentiments on Twitter and he may not be the president standing on the White House balcony. But even from Florida, “he still controls the party,” Shake said.*
And he will not give up this control easily. Why would he? It is the reason that he keeps promoting his “big lie,” with his rallies, his emails soliciting donations and his false promises of a supposedly better America which only he is really fighting for with every means available, even with those that, one fears, go against everything the Constitution and American democracy stand for.
And his followers love him for it, despite the lies on which he is building this better America, and even though what Trump cares about most is Trump. Then as now, he is a master of promising the other half of the U.S. nothing less than seeing that they are returned to their rightful place in this country. That’s why people stand by him, why they don’t pack away their signs, and why they fight with him for their U.S. The end of Trump the politician, so longed for by his opponents, is still far from becoming reality.
*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted remark could not be independently verified.