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.

Things are not what they seem

While we stew in our outrage and disbelief at the storming of the US Capitol…

From the Economist

From the New York Times

Finally, after legislators were escorted back to the Capitol under armed guard, eight Republican senators and 138 representatives still voted to object to the electoral college votes being certified.

The question is how opinions about the storming of the Capitol will change over time. Are these early polls just voters indicating partisan loyalty in response to outrage and condemnation? Once the heat of the moment passes, maybe it will become easier to acknowledge what happened without calling one’s partisan affiliation into question.

A lot depends on the narratives that are created over the next few weeks. One way to think about efforts to impeach Trump or trigger the 25th Amendment (which would allow for his removal by Cabinet) is as attempts to solidify a narrative of outrage and transgression. Even if it fails, impeachment sends the message that a line was crossed.

On the Right, effort is underway to justify what happened (they were legitimately angry patriots) or fabricate new explanations (it was an antifa false flag). Impeachment is likely to turn the broader question of what happened on the US Capitol into a loyalty test for Republican voters; if ‘mob storming Capitol to subvert a Constitutional democratic process’ = impeaching President Trump, it may only encourage Republican voters to believe false narratives that better align with partisan loyalty.

For the long term health of America’s democratic institutions, it is essential that what happened on the Capitol is universally accepted as a transgressive and unacceptable act. As hard as it is to hear, it may be better to get Republicans in agreement over the appropriate narrative – even if it means giving up some of the performative rage – than create one only your side believes in.

The battle for the future of the Republican Party

That battle kicks off today.

Future Republican Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley

From the WSJ

Trump has released a statement condemning the violence and promising an orderly transition, however he closed by saying “our incredible journey is only just beginning.”

Are we watching the beginning of Trump 2024 or Trump the third-party candidate?

What would a Democrat victory in Georgia mean?

As of writing (1am Australia/9am Georgia), it looks as if Democrats are likely to win both run-off elections in Georgia, handing them control of 50 of the Senate’s 100 seats. With the Vice-President casting a vote during ties, Democrats would have defacto control of the chamber.

The NYT has excellent rolling coverage.

While winning control of the Senate will give Democrats more space for their legislative agenda, it is likely to shift other political dynamics. With that in mind, a few points to mull on over the next few days:

  • How will this change the relationship between the progressive and conservative wings of the democratic party? On the surface it seems likely to empower conservative Democrat senators, whose votes will now be essential for any legislation – remember, the 51st vote only comes into play should there already be a tie. At the same time, we are a long way from 2009 and the haggling over Obamacare. Holdout Democrats who refuse to cooperate (or are perceived to be doing so) will come under far more pressure than they did then. ‘Crossing the aisle’ will be labelled as working with Trump.
  • How will this change the relationship between Trump and the Republican Party? To date, the party has resisted openly contradicting him over his allegations of voter fraud, in part due to these elections. With mid-terms two years away, how will the Party’s calculus change? An optimistic reading would have moderate Republicans using the defeats and the two year electoral lull to wrest back control and distance themselves from him.

    A more pessimistic reading sees defeat strengthening Trump’s hold over the party. The great danger is that having already lost the elections, the party get behind his claims of voter fraud, or at least refuses to refute them, partly as a way to delegitimise the incoming administration, and partly due to pressure from the base. While it is probably turning moderate voters away, the Faustian bargain may prove hard to pull out of.
Trump is already claiming fraud was underway in Georgia
  • Finally, how will this change the relationship between the parties? Biden has been talking up the possibility of bipartisanship, but there is a version of events where these wins make both sides more intransigent. If concessions need to be made, better to make them to someone in your own party. On the other side, collaborating with a possible illegitimate and fraudulent government will be more difficult than normal.

While the elections results would certainly widen the Democrat’s legislative agenda, we should be careful from reading too much into these results. The deeper trend of polarization, with its roots in institutions, geography, and demographics, may be harder to shift.

The stab-in-the-back myth and Trump

On January 6th, Congress will receive the Electoral College’s votes to certify. This normally symbolic step will now be debated and voted on, following Republican Senator Hawley’s decision to object to the results. The vote is almost certain to meet the same fate as all of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election – failure. However, it will air his claims in Congress and force Republicans to take a loyalty test between the President or democratic norms.

The single sitting Republican to openly condemn this behavior has received front-page coverage in the Times, which only makes the the reticence – nay cowardice – of his colleagues stand out.

As I’ve discussed several times before, Trump is not going anywhere and the fact that the electoral system has resisted outright subversion only makes the consequences of his actions more difficult to pinpoint.

Will electoral fraud become the American Right’s ‘stab-in-the-back-myth‘?

Educational Film: Weimar Republic - Stab-in-the-Back Legend - YouTube

Trump’s party

I’ve been writing a lot about Trump and the Republican Party recently. The last month has shown that Trump is going nowhere, and his most likely vehicle will be the now captive Republican Party.

This long read in the NYT on Trump’s influence over the GOP is essential reading on the topic. I found the idea that Trump’s primary appeal is his combative spirit quite interesting. His base values this because they believe themselves to be in an “existential war.”


If the article has a failing it is that its portrait style study leaves the explanation feeling overly psychological, too rooted in the idiosyncrasies of Trump’s personality. Still, I think it is perfectly consistent with more structural explanations if we simply ask why an increasing portion of the electorate feels themselves to be on the losing side of an existential war?

Please do read the whole thing.