Trump might be more powerful than we thought

Last week I tried to make sense of the Republican establishment’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s win by talking about how the party might be being held hostage by its base:

Lets start from the assumption that the GOP is moving forward as a minoritarian party. The electoral college and Senate already give rural lower population states disproportionately more influence. Mix in gerrymandering, and it is possible to see how power could be held without a majority of the electorate. The key is an energized base that reliably turns out. Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing this election shows that relying on steady doses of radicalization works.

One implication is that the party can be held hostage by its base. If Trump succeeds in convincing a majority of them that fraud is underway, then the party has to go along with it, even if only rhetorically. Where the base is highly radicalized, party moderation becomes difficult; moderates will find themselves (and have found themselves) facing primary challenges from the right.

Yesterday, Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, and probably the most powerful Republican (person?) in Washington broke his silence on the election. He talked up the GOP win and backed Trump’s refusal to concede the election, saying the results were “preliminary” and Trump was “100 percent within his rights” to challenge the outcome.

At this point, the number of Republicans who have acknowledged Biden’s win can be counted on one hand.

One popular theory paints Trump as the Republican party’s useful idiot. According to this view (see Sarah Churchwell in this episode of Talking Politics for an overview) Mitch McConnell is the real power behind the throne, and Trump survives at his mercy; impeachment was only avoided because Mitch wanted it to be so.

The events of the last week show Trump might be more powerful than once thought. Consider what would happen to the Republican party if it abandoned him. He could turn on them, accuse them of corruption / betrayal, and from the perch of a new television network rail against them (and the Democrats) for four years, before running as a third party candidate in 2024. Maybe he starts a new party earlier, and runs candidates in the 2022 mid-terms. This is a nightmare scenario for the Republican Party, a more charismatic and popular version of Ralph Nader who appeals to their base.

The million-dollar question for American democracy is whether Trump is cunning enough to sleepwalk the Republicans into an actual coup. I remain optimistic about America’s political institutions.

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