Life After Trump: The Republican Party's Identity Crisis
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
On 13th February, former President Donald Trump was acquitted of his impeachment charge of inciting an insurrection. An important victory for Trump and his loyalists within the Republican Party, Trump remains a major political player and will be free to run again for the presidency in 2024.
However, the Republican Party — also referred to as the GOP — faces a more immediate issue than its future presidential candidate. As they adapt to their backseat role in Washington, the Republicans face an identity crisis that could develop into a serious issue if not addressed quickly. The party consists of several competing groups, creating a divide that could harm their return to prominence. Trump loyalists, Anti-Trump enthusiasts and Trumpism without Trump: these are just some of the factions and ideas competing to assert authority within the Republican Party.
Trump’s impact on the Republican Party
Donald Trump’s policy decisions were often overshadowed by his controversial personality and brand of populist politics, with his final few months in office further dividing his party. Could a man who arguably threatened democracy and incited an insurrection remain an important member of the Republican political landscape? Are the GOP willing to distance themselves from a man who received 74 million votes in the election? These are the questions Republicans are considering when deciding the future of their party.
Trump himself appears confident that his political future is secure. Following his impeachment acquittal, Trump stated that his movement “had only just begun”. This was further supported by republicans including Lindsey Graham who exclaimed “The Trump movement is alive and well”. Before his final months in office, concluding with the storming of Capitol Hill on January 6th, Trump remained immensely popular with the Republican Party. Despite his defeat to Biden, Trump still received over 74 million votes in the election, a clear signal of his popularity and political power. At one point during his presidency, Trump held an 88% approval rating within the Republican Party, the joint highest rating in GOP history.
Only 17 congressional Republicans across both the Senate and House of Representatives supported the indictment of the former president, some of whom were criticised by Trump loyalists. The GOP are aware of the power and popularity that comes with Donald Trump and it appears that most still align themselves with the president, or at the very least, his political ideology.
Some Republicans are considering moving forward by continuing with a Trumpist ideology without Trump himself. Although challenging, some in the party prefer to find a way to continue advocating the ideological facets of Trumpism whilst distancing themselves from the more negative and divisive aspects that come with Trump himself.
Indeed, Republicans often say that Trump made them a working-class party. He reformed the tax code and made conservative appointments to the judiciary. He delivered on promises he made regarding pro-life issues and deregulation. This appealed to both certain sections of American society and the Republican Party establishment. For the first time in a long time, the GOP were no longer seen as the party of Wall Street and big business. The hope for some Republicans is to maintain these policies while distancing themselves from the racist, xenophobic, and sexist rhetoric Trump brought with them.
Whilst Trumpism itself may be a relatively new feature of the Republican Party, the values that it promotes have been embedded in the party for several decades. The GOP’s further shift to the right started in the 1990s, resulting in them controlling the House for the first time in 40 years. This was due to policies that were also present during the Trump administration; tough immigration policies, economic nationalism and opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Trump sped this shift along whilst exposing the party’s longstanding move towards more extreme right-wing politics.
Yet, any attempt to move away from the Trump personality cult could be destabilised by the numerous elected Republicans who continue to share both Trump’s ideological standpoint and his controversial political behaviour. During the president’s final years in office, the Republican Party welcomed a growing number of Trump loyalists who willingly promoted his more extreme views that other republicans want to distance themselves from.
The new face of the party
A prime example of the extremist element that has rooted itself within the Republican Party is the recent election of Marjorie Taylor Greene to the House of Representatives. Greene is a Trump loyalist and far-right conspiracy theorist whose controversies include expressing support for the execution of leading Democrats, previously embracing the QAnon conspiracy theory and claiming that school shootings were staged. Much of her behaviour has gone unchecked within her party, with only a few Republicans openly criticising her views.
Earlier this month, Greene was punished for her lengthy history of extreme commentary. The House of Representatives stripped Greene of all committee assignments, thanks to the unanimous vote by Democrats along with 11 Republican votes. Though a victory for the Democrats, these voting results only further outlined the refusal of Republican leadership to condemn such extreme views within the party. Clearly, many Republicans have recognised the appeal of Trump’s form of populist politics.
The Anti-Trump Wing
Nevertheless, there remains some dissenting voices within the party who would prefer to separate from Trumpism entirely, seemingly dissatisfied with the moral direction in which the GOP is heading. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has been a relatively isolated voice in looking forward to a post-Trump GOP. However, this faction has weakened significantly since Trump tightened his ideological grip on the party.
Wyoming congresswoman Elizabeth Cheney has been an outspoken critic of Trump ever since the attack on the Capitol on 6th January, leading her to become of the few Republican House members who voted for impeachment. The third-most senior Republican in the House of Representatives Cheney has since received death threats and has faced calls to step down from her leadership role within the GOP. Following a campaign to strip Cheney of her leadership position within the GOP, House Republicans voted 145-61 to keep Cheney in her leadership post.
A balancing act
However, many Republicans are firmly against distancing themselves from Trump as long as he remains popular with their voter base. Very few Republicans supported the former president’s impeachment, and those who did faced harsh criticism from the rest of the GOP.
Trump’s popularity has resulted in several Republican’s adopting his ideology to further enhance their own political standing. Senator Ted Cruz — a former hard-nosed Trump critic — is looking to court Trump voters ahead of the 2024 presidential primaries. Cruz was vocal in questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s victory and defended Trump during the impeachment trial. Cruz is seemingly aware of Trump’s popularity among the Republican’s Southern voter base, understanding that any presidential ambition requires potential candidates to be in lockstep with Trump.
Josh Hawley is another example of a potential future candidate positioning his politics to appeal to Trump supporters. On January 6th, the Senator from Missouri was photographed raising his first in solidarity with the protestors who stormed the Capitol, resulting in fierce backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike. Furthermore, Hawley was the first senator to object to the presidential election results, cementing his loyalty to Trump and his followers. Although Hawley’s actions have turned him into somewhat of a pariah in Washington, this is not necessarily a negative for his presidential ambitions. It is popularity with voters, not other politicians, that takes priority.
However, by keeping Trumpism alive, both Republicans are aiding the possibility of Trump running again. If this were to happen, Hawley and Cruz’s tactics would have been for nothing as Trump would most likely immediately reclaim the votes of his supporters.
What Next for the Republican Party?
The voting results of both the Greene and Cheney incidents encapsulate the struggle the GOP faces in establishing a future political identity. The fact that Greene received almost unanimous backing from Republicans suggests the majority in the GOP will not risk distancing themselves from any aspects of Trump, including his more extremist views. For many Republicans, his personality was partly responsible for their party’s relative success. Trumpism is not possible without Trump and so his dangerous rhetoric must remain.
Cheney’s opposition to the former president resulted in a full-fledged campaign against her. Despite this, the majority voted for her to keep a leadership role. It appears the GOP does not support speaking out against Trump but are not willing to completely punish those who do. Some Republicans are facing a tug-of-war between what is morally right and what is politically beneficial. If Trump remains influential, the GOP can’t have it both ways.
There is also the prospect of the Trump name remaining in frontline politics, although not necessarily in the form of Donald Trump Sr. There is speculation that Ivanka Trump is preparing to run for office. Donald Trump Jr. is also very active in right-wing politics, inheriting his father’s talents for controversial, smash-mouth politics. It is not inconceivable that over the coming years, Trump could establish a political dynasty, joining the likes of the Bushes and The Clintons.
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Edited by Alex Leggett