Many in the Republican Party have fully committed themselves to backing Donald Trump, putting their reputations on the line in the process. But others who were previously supportive of Trump have since jumped ship.
On January 20, after former President Donald Trump waved farewell from the steps of Air Force One for the final time, Republicans were left wondering where the party will go in the post-Trump era.
Trump marked a notable shift in the politics of the GOP, specifically a move toward a more populist, nationalistic ideology that resonated with voters on the right as well as more moderate and previously left leaning voters who had grown disenchanted with politics under previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
During Trump’s four years in office, many Republicans moved further right in an attempt to gain the president’s support, while others stayed where they were, leading to what has since become a noticeable split in the party.
With Trump out of office and Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, the direction Republicans move next will be crucial in determining whether the party regains its House and Senate majority in 2022 and potentially the White House in 2024.
The pro-Trump crowd
Many in the Republican Party have fully committed themselves to backing Donald Trump, putting their reputations on the line in the process. This has left these Republicans in the position of being admired by the Trump base but criticized by those outside it.
Such criticism rose to new heights after the Capitol riots on January 6, due in large part to the fact that many GOP leaders in the pro-Trump crowd have echoed the former president’s unfounded claims that widespread voter fraud took place during the November 3 election.
This rhetoric was what led to the riots and the most vocal proponents of these claims have faced severe criticism. Since January 6, Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley (both of whom touted the fraudulent vote conspiracy) have been called on by Democrats to resign.
Other Republican senators admonished the former president for inciting the Capitol riots, but have since retreated back into his corner. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is one such Republican who, since admonishing the president, has moved to criticizing House Democrats for impeaching him. Graham even assisted Trump in finding a lawyer, fellow South Carolinian Butch Bowers, to defend him in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial.
Other Republicans who have yoked themselves to the president include, unsurprisingly, those in the Trump family who are thought to aspire to political office, most notably the president’s children, Don Jr. and Ivanka.
“If he is convicted in the Senate in a few weeks, Trump’s role may be constrained to fundraising, media appearances, and boosting the political careers of his adult children who may be interested in running for office themselves,” Dr. Lauren Wright, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, told TMS.
The away-from-Trump crowd
With the exception of Senator Mitt Romney – who has found himself at odds with the president a number of times – many Republicans who were previously supportive of Trump have since jumped ship.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly called out the comments of the former president, saying that the Capitol rioters were “provoked by the president and other powerful people.” McConnell is also rumored to be pleased about Trump’s impeachment in the House.
“I think McConnell’s acknowledgment that the party needs to move away from Trump is a signal he believes there’s appetite for that in his caucus and he believes it’s the best long-term health plan for the party,” said Dr. Wright. “Ironically, the leaders of the party, McConnell, Graham, McCarthy, are the most important [in terms of] agenda-setting and direction-shaping, but they are also the least likely to be affected by it because of their safe seats, status, popularity, and recognition among voters.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was another Republican who condemned Trump for inciting the riots at the Capitol. However, McCarthy did not vote to impeach Trump for inciting the rioters, instead claiming that “Most Americans want neither inaction nor retribution.”
The agenda set by party leaders in non-election years tends to shape the debates that surround the campaigns in election years. Republicans like McConnell now face the difficult decision to either continue to embrace Trumpism or to rethink the party’s priorities in an effort to expand its appeal beyond the base.
According to Dr. Wright, rethinking priorities is the only way out of the hole for the party.
“Trump’s record, and his national brand, has been a disaster for the party … I think the hope of many Republican elected officials is that they can keep the parts of Trumpism they like – the message of economic populism for instance – and toss out the ugliness and dangerous anti-democratic behavior, but so much has happened since 2016 that can’t be reversed.”
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