As Republicans adjust to their diminished stature in Washington, they have been consumed by infighting over the party’s future, with opposing factions in open disagreement about how to deal with the rising tide of extremism on the right that grew out of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The debate has centered on the same questions that dominated national politics for the past four years. Did Trump transform the Republican Party into a cult of personality, destined to fall apart the moment he lost power? Or is Trumpism, far from being an aberration, part of a broader sea change in conservative politics?
Republicans will soon be forced to choose sides in the Senate, where Trump will face an impeachment charge of inciting a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last month. But in the weeks since Trump left office, the party has struggled to separate the former president from the deeply loyal base of supporters he left behind — including voters who promote extreme right values and helped elect officials like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., the first-term lawmaker who was stripped of her committee assignments Thursday by House Democrats for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories and racist and anti-Semitic views before her election.
The fierce backlash against Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from members of her own party for her vote to impeach Trump underscores the challenges many Republicans now face in trying to distance themselves from some aspects of Trumpism without angering voters whose support they’ll need in the midterm elections next year.
To claw their way back to power, Republicans must first resolve the internal fight for control of the party, a battle between those who want to embrace Trump’s personality and policies, and those eager to leave Trumpian politics — and the extremism it emboldened — behind.
“Some people simply didn’t appreciate his style, but they did appreciate the results that he got,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said of Republicans. “Others liked him for the way he did it as well. I think that’s where the difference is.”
Uncertainty over Trump’s near-term plans has only exacerbated the dilemma, according to interviews with current Republican lawmakers, strategists, former campaign officials, and others. Republicans are still waiting to see how much influence he will wield in the 2022 midterms from his perch at Mar-a-Lago.
“For us to move past Trump, that’s going to be tough,” said Terry Holt, who served as a senior campaign adviser for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. “The personality stuff, the big flag with his name on it, it’s not like you can replace that with a symbol of the party.”
Division over Trump and his more extreme followers boiled throughout his presidency. He developed a strong following among rank-and-file Republican lawmakers after taking office. But as Trump consolidated his grip on the party’s grassroots, his abrasive demeanor, lack of discipline, and disinterest in policy and most other aspects of governance, and a growing wing of the party with ties to white supremacy, created tension with the Republican establishment.
The tensions reached new heights in the aftermath of the November election and especially after the attack on the Capitol, when Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and others said Trump played a role in fomenting the violence.
“This is about rebuilding, licking our wounds, learning what we need to do, and some very serious introspection,” Holt said, “and then you [could] see the party emerge from that period and there’s a viable set of people running in 2024.”
Some Republicans argued the party’s internal struggles were overblown. Trump won 74 million votes in November, the second most ever after President Joe Biden’s record total and a clear indication that his message and policies were popular with a broad cross section of Republicans, said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas.
“With 2022 coming up, we’ve got a good chance to retake the House. We’ll see what happens with the Senate, but the Republican Party is strong,” Williams said.
But even optimistic Republicans acknowledged that the party’s soul-searching period requires a reckoning with Trump and the party’s rightward shift, which in the 1990s allowed them to take control of the House for the first time in nearly 40 years,and then a decade later gave rise to the anti-establishment Tea Party movement.
“Trump is a product of many decades where the Republican Party has changed dramatically in terms of [embracing] extremism, and the embrace of a very aggressive, smashmouth approach to politics,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “Trump accelerated those trends. He exposed where the party was, but he didn’t create it. There were deep roots to what he did.”
Still, Trump’s unprecedented attempt to overturn the election, and expansive use of presidential power, sets him apart from his predecessors, said Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford University. “The way he perceived the executive branch is so fundamentally different than the way other presidents have,” he said.
Richard Nixon was welcomed back by the Republican Party and recast as an elder statesman after he spent a decade as a political pariah following his resignation in 1974 over the Watergate scandal. Bush was disliked by a majority of Americans when he left office after a tumultuous two terms in 2009, but his presidency is now viewed wistfully by many Republicans, and even some Democrats, as a period of relative political stability. Trump’s fight to overturn the election left a stain on his legacy that won’t fade over time, several Republicans said.
“History will recognize that he did what he said [he would do] with regard to taxes, with regard to the courts, with regard to pro-life issues, regulatory relief,” Rounds said. But the last two months were “a disappointment, and I think history may very well judge harshly.”
The challenge, Republicans in and out of Congress said, is finding a way to continue championing some ideological aspects of Trumpism while at the same time discarding the negative elements associated with Trump as an individual.
“There’s Donald Trump the personality, and Donald Trump the populist movement. And the Republican Party, in my view, can’t be a majority party without the populist movement,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
“Trumpism without Trump has the potential to be a very successful approach moving forward,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and the GOP chairman for Travis County, Texas, an area that includes the left-leaning city of Austin. “I believe Trump made our party a working class party, and that is something we have to continue. We can’t go back to being the country club rich party.”
The strategy will only work if the party clearly defines what it stands for, Mackowiak said, ticking off a list of ideological guideposts.
“It’s not about xenophobia or the rest of that shit. It’s about rebalancing our trade agreements, and decoupling from China. It’s about enforcing immigration laws. It’s about a booming economy with rising wages, with low and predictable regulation. It’s about a strong military.”
Republican leaders have already begun that approach under Biden. The party has focused on drawing a sharp policy distinction with Democrats on the economy, climate change and most other issues, while seeking to find some common ground on Senate negotiations over a coronavirus relief bill.
But those efforts have been undermined in part by newly elected Republicans who represent a growing far-right faction in the party that is deeply loyal to Trump. They include Greene and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., who gained attention by opposing security rules that bar members of Congress from carrying firearms into the House chamber.
Trump’s popularity with conservative voters could encourage Republicans who see the benefits of sticking by his side.
Trump left office with a 34 percent approval rating, according to the final Gallup poll taken during his presidency. But 82 percent of Republicans said they approved of Trump in the survey, which was conducted in the days before and after the attack on the Capitol. Trump’s average approval rating among Republicans during his presidency was 88 percent, tied with Dwight D. Eisenhower for the highest on record.
Taking Trump out of Trumpism could prove difficult when a segment of the party doesn’t want to cooperate, said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a historian at the University of New Hampshire.
“I don’t think that there’s any evidence that they’re concerned about stuffing the genie back into the bottle. On the contrary,” Fitzpatrick said. “There are people waiting in the wings who share these views and are seeking ways of moving into the spotlight themselves and furthering that.”
Democrats argued that Republicans can’t cherry-pick Trump’s legacy. Republicans own his policy record, they said, including his tax cut, unsuccessful efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act, crackdown on immigration, reversal of government programs to curb climate change, and his handling of the pandemic.
And by refusing to push back against Trump, Democrats in Congress said, Republican lawmakers at least tacitly endorsed aspects of Trumpism that many Americans find deeply offensive: anti-immigrant sentiment, hostility towards institutions, and the racism on display from white supremacists who participated in the attack on the Capitol.
“I think they are literally torn as they look in the mirror, and they look at the polling, and they look at their own constituents,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said of Republicans navigating the post-Trump era.
Republicans are “going to have to decide which side of history they’re on, and whether they’re going to stake their careers on a failed, totally self-consumed, law-breaking former public official who happens to command a cult,” Blumenthal said.
Some Republicans agreed the party can’t repudiate the dark side of Trumpism without making a full break from him.
“I think Trump is cancer. He cost us the House, Senate and White House,” said Mike Murphy, who worked as a senior adviser on the presidential campaigns of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and the late John McCain. “We should impeach him. We ought to vote that he can’t run for office again.”
Several said Republican lawmakers will think twice about appearing to distance themselves from Trump while he remains so popular with Republican voters. Very few Republicans in Congress have supported the impeachment effort, and those who have faced fierce backlash.
Just 10 House Republicans joined Democrats in voting to impeach Trump last month for holding a rally the morning of Jan. 6 where he told supporters to “fight” the election results. Hours later, rioters attacked the Capitol and temporarily stopped Congress from finalizing its count of the Electoral College results. Five people died in the attack, including a Capitol Police officer.
Some of the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump claim they have since received death threats. Cheney, the third-highest ranking House Republican and the most prominent party member to back impeachment, has become a cautionary tale for any Republican thinking about crossing Trump.
Conservatives in the House mounted a campaign to strip Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, of her position as chair of the House Republican conference. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not back the effort, and on Wednesday, House Republicans voted 145-61 to keep Cheney in her post in GOP leadership. But McCarthy issued a strong public rebuke, saying he had “concerns” that Cheney broke with other Republican leaders.
Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of Trump’s closest allies in the House, took the unusual step of traveling to Cheney’s home state of Wyoming to hold a rally in which he called on her to resign. The spectacle of one Republican going to great lengths to attack another on her home turf underscored how divided the party is, at least among lawmakers in Congress.
On Thursday, the House voted 230-199 to strip Greene of her committee assignments. McCarthy earlier denounced some of Greene’s rhetoric and floated a compromise in which he would remove her from one of her two committees, but the Democratic majority pushed forward with their effort. Eleven Republicans joined Democrats in voting to remove Greene from her posts on the House Budget Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee.
The intra-party fight over Greene and Cheney foreshadows a potentially divisive primary election cycle next year in which Trump could play a starring role as an outside kingmaker.
Before leaving office, Trump vowed to exact revenge against his Republican critics by backing their primary challengers in 2022. Several Republicans said that even if the party wanted to, there was little it could do to stop Trump from supporting conservatives with extreme views who may not be viable general election candidates.
That could be a problem for Republicans, especially in suburban areas where voters rejected Trump in the general election.
“It doesn’t take a Ph.D in political science to recognize that our party’s brand has some challenges in suburban America. And yet that’s an area of the country, it’s a constituency that remains sort of available to us with the right messages and the right messenger,” said Cramer, a supporter of Trump’s in the Senate. “If there’s a lesson to have been learned, it’s not just the policy but the message that matters, including the messenger.”
So far Trump has been quiet since he left the White House. It’s an open question how much he’ll engage in politics now that he is no longer in the spotlight, but several factors could shape his plans in the coming years.
Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account after the Capitol attack, depriving him of an unfiltered social media platform that allowed him to reach millions of followers and kept him in the headlines.
The Trump Organization is under criminal investigation for potential financial crimes by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, and New York State Attorney General Letitia James is conducting a civil probe into the company’s business dealings. Trump is also facing a defamation case in federal court brought by a woman who alleged that he raped her in a New York department store in the 1990s, a charge Trump denied. He may choose to keep a lower public profile if his legal troubles grow.
Republican operatives are also already looking ahead to the primary battle ahead of the 2024 presidential election, which will help determine the future of the party.
In his final weeks in office Trump reportedly considered announcing plans to run for president again as soon as he left office. The Senate could block Trump from holding federal office in the future, but that is looking increasingly unlikely as support wanes for convicting him in the trial that is slated to start next week.
If the Senate doesn’t take action against Trump, he could hold a threat of another White House run over the 2024 primary field. Either way, Trump will have an impact on the primary race, forcing Republicans who are rumored to be considering a run for president — a list that includes Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas — to decide how closely they want to align themselves with his rhetoric and record.
A close association with Trump has already proved problematic for Republicans like Hawley and Cruz, who helped spearhead the objections to the Electoral College count that led to the Capitol attack. In response, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Commerce Bank, and other companies announced their political action committees would suspend contributions to lawmakers who voted against the Electoral College results.
“While a contrast of ideas, ideological differences and partisanship are all part of our politics, weakening our political system and eroding public confidence in it must never be,” Blue Cross Blue Shield Association President and CEO Kim Keck said in a statement announcing the move.
Hawley’s book publisher, Simon & Schuster, also canceled his upcoming book, and the Lincoln Project, a Republican group that produced anti-Trump ads during the election, said it would run attack ads against Hawley.
“Trump has caused a donor revolt and that is very scary. These guys are very cognizant of all this stuff,” Murphy said of Republican lawmakers. “They’re in the awkward position of choosing between primary voters who like Trump and big business who they like and whose money they need.”
The party’s future depends on figuring all of that out, Murphy added.
“The job of those of us who don’t believe in Trumpism is to build it back with other conservative options,” he said. “If we’re running around in a Trump costume with a pitchfork trying to burn down the Capitol, we won’t win. And we shouldn’t win because the country will hate us.”
Lisa Desjardins contributed reporting.