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 the third party candidate

I’ve been tossing around the following question all week:

What explains the Republican Party’s decision to (at least implicitly) go along with Trump’s increasingly brazen attempts to undermine the electoral system and Biden’s victory?

Prior to the election, and in the hours/days immediately following it, I expected that the Republican Party would cut Trump loose. They had gained significant influence over the judiciary through the appointment of hundreds of judges to district courts, as well as three to the Supreme Court. Instead of a ‘blue wave,’ Republicans looked set to increase their share of the House and hold onto the Senate. It seemed a perfect moment for the party: lose a useful but erratic leader while maintaining enough power to make Biden’s administration impotent.

Instead, Republicans have supported him on a spectrum from emphasising his right to legal action, to actively participating in his conspiracies. The few Republicans criticizing him get lots of media headlines, but they are usually either retiring or long-time opponents of Trump. The real power in the party remains quiet. Much has been made of number 3 Republican in the House, Liz Cheney’s, recent statement, which on my reading is rather subdued. Judge for yourself:

“America is governed by the rule of law. The President and his lawyers have made claims of criminality and widespread fraud, which they allege could impact election results. If they have genuine evidence of this, they are obligated to present it immediately in court and to the American people. I understand that the President has filed more than thirty separate lawsuits. If he is unsatisfied with the results in those lawsuits, then the appropriate avenue is to appeal. If the President cannot prove these claims or demonstrate that they would change the election result, he should fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

This muted reaction follows daily accusations that voter fraud is so widespread that the electoral system is unable to deliver free or fair results. These accusations are also increasing distrust with the electoral system among Republicans – although the problem is not as new as we might think.


The willingness of the party to follow Trump down this rabbit hole comes back to his hold over the party base. The radicalisation of the Republican party started before Trump with the Tea-Party movement, but he has been the apotheosis of its politics of outrage and mistrust. He achieved the second highest voter turnout in US electoral history in part thanks to the brand he has built around himself. Think back to the relief checks that were sent out with his signature on them. He has personalised politics around himself, and in doing so, has made himself difficult to excise from the party. He is also working to hold on to party machinery, with his preferred candidate seeking reelection to Chair of the Republican National Committee.


There is an element of both carrot and stick here. Republicans certainly want to draw on his pull to increase turnout and energise the base, but they are probably also terrified of the consequences of crossing him. The Republican Governor of Ohio, who appeared to acknowledge Biden’s win, has received threats of a primary challenge from Trump. He has also called Georgia’s Secretary of State a traitor.

Trump’s hold over the base gives him enormous power in any intra-party power struggle because of how dangerous he could be outside the party. Remember, Trump was asked to sign a pledge back in 2015 not to run as a third-party candidate should he lose the Republican primary process. If the party were seen to turn their back on Trump, he could declare the party corrupt – in league with the Deep State – and launch a new party, a new movement. This would be an existential threat for Republicans by splitting the conservative vote. Even if he stopped short of this nuclear option, the prospect of Trump on TV flinging vitriol at Republicans and supporting primary challengers looks like to keep the party in line for the foreseeable future.

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.