Trump is performing better than the headlines suggest

Trump has now been acquitted in his second impeachment trial, notching up yet another “first.” Had you scanned the headlines of the New York Times or the Financial Times, you could be forgiven for feeling a modicum of satisfaction amidst the disappointment; Trump got off, but the Republican Party is breaking with him; Trump got off, but his name has been tarnished for good; Trump got off, but is fading into irrelevance in (the surely very tacky) Mar-a-Lago.

The story is a little different if you scroll down.

74% of Republican voters want to see him continue in politics. Only 54% of Americans want him out of politics. I stress only because Trump is, on paper, specifically the paper the NYT is printed on, the most disreputable and tarnished President in recent history.

What about the political establishment, his fellow-travelers? Only seven out of the fifty Senate Republicans voted with Democrats against Trump. Of those seven, three do not have to stand for election for five years, two are retiring, and two – Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski – have long built names as the (only) Republican Senators who dare to criticize Trump. Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, one of the seven, has already been censured by Louisiana’s Republican Party.

Much has been made of Mitch McConnell’s statement: “There is no question that president Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.” A statement he made after having voted to acquit Trump.

All this despite having been banned from Twitter for weeks.

Has Trump’s brand been damaged? Among Democrats and Moderates, yes. Among his base, which encompasses a majority of the Republican Party, probably not.

Are Republicans divided over his future influence? Perhaps in private. For now though, most establishment Republicans have been remarkably reticent to criticize the Teflon Don.

Trump will be the defining question for right-wing politics in the US until at least the mid-terms in 2022. There are a spectrum of possibilities from party moderates neutralising his influence, to Trump retaining control, including a messy collapse into years of internecine war. I suspect Trump will hold the reigns in the short-term. The winner-takes-all electoral system incentivizes party unity, and makes the threat of Trump running as a third-party candidate existential. This will make the mid-term elections in 2022 a litmus test for each faction. I suspect moderates will look for mistakes and failures in the 2022 mid-terms as evidence to try and neutralise him prior to 2024.

Would that we did not have to care about the parochial divisions of an outlandish political party in the United States. Yet, this group has the power to stymie everything from action on climate change, to relief for one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

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.