Trump and the GOP
The relationship between Trump and the GOP is distorted by conspiracy theories whose adherents endanger American democracy
Rep. Liz Cheney is reported as saying, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday”, that Trump ‘does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward’. It is worth examining why she might have said this and what the implications are for the future of her party.
The Republican party is known as the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP), tracing its origin to Abraham Lincoln. As she said, “With respect to where we are as a party … we are the party of Lincoln. We are not the party of QAnon or anti-Semitism or Holocaust deniers or white supremacy or conspiracy theories. That’s not who we are”. She was trying to distance her party from the views of some of Donald Trump’s supporters who invaded the Capitol building on 6 January, an incident for which the ex-president is now facing impeachment proceedings.
A BBC report, Capitol riots: Who broke into the building?, identified “individuals associated with a range of extreme and far-right groups and supporters of fringe online conspiracy theories, many of whom have long been active online and at pro-Trump rallies”, including QAnon. The report contains links to further information about Qanon and the Proud Boys, a heavily-armed anti-immigrant militia.
According to a YouGov poll taken the following day, “Most voters say the events at the US Capitol are a threat to democracy”, although among Republican voters “only a quarter (27%) think this should be considered a threat to democracy, with two-thirds (68%) saying otherwise”. Liz Cheney, then, is fighting an uphill battle against grassroots opinion in her party – although many Trump supporters had been persuaded that the election results were fraudulent, so they perceived the Democrats rather than Trump as a threat to democracy.
She is not alone in her party, though. CNN cited George W Bush and Mitt Romney among others in its report: Angry Republican leaders float removing Trump from office. They agreed that the election results were not fraudulent and that Trump was putting American democracy at risk by undermining public trust in the system. Now that the House has called for impeachment, it is up to the Senate what happens next.
Some wealthy individuals have been trying to influence the debate by funding the campaigns of several senators, as reported by The Guardian: Billionaires backed Republicans who sought to reverse US election results. “The Club for Growth’s biggest beneficiaries include Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, the two Republican senators who led the effort to invalidate Joe Biden’s electoral victory”. These sleazy individuals continue to support Trump – but presumably what they really want is to win the next election.
The key question is whether Trump as a personality is necessary to the future of the GOP. “If you can replicate his draw amongst rural, working-class voters without the insanity, you have a permanent governing majority,” said Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell knows that to win the next election he needs not only to retain Trump’s existing supporters but also attract some who had previously voted Democrat (and who strongly disapprove of Trump). Trump’s behaviour may also have cost the GOP its Senate majority, in upsetting some Republicans and losing two seats in the Georgia Senate election. The party now has an opportunity to reset its future by convicting Trump in the Senate. That would let it distance itself from an individual who has badly tarnished his reputation, and it will have enough time to adjust its messaging before the mid-term elections next year.
Update to this post, dated 30/11/2023
Apart from the strapline at the top, the above text is unchanged from when it was first posted on 9 February 2021. An archive of the original is available at at https://www.patternsofpower.org/Blog-archive/210209-1.htm.
As most readers will know, Trump was subsequently acquitted by the Senate, with the help of unprincipled manoeuvrings by Senate leader Mitch McConnell. This update to the original post on the relationship between Trump and the GOP reflects on its current significance as America approaches another election. I am indebted to Mike Radcliffe for drawing to my attention a relevant Guardian article: We can’t fight the Republican party’s ‘big lie’ with facts alone.
That article noted that the Republican Party knows it cannot afford to antagonise Trump loyalists: “Contradicting Trump’s absurdities risks falling out of favour with the leader and his supporters”. The absurd assertion that Trump won the 2020 election is referred to in the article as the ‘big lie’. The party has now elected an advocate of the ‘big lie’, Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana, as Speaker of the House – perhaps because he “was the head of the committee to question the integrity of the  election”. The article makes the following points:
“The issue can’t simply be resolved by “trusted” sources, even those on the far right, who can communicate the truth about the election to Trump supporters. Instead, sources only become trusted if they agree to the lie.”
“A democracy will struggle to survive, let alone flourish, when such huge swathes of its population see it as their badge of loyalty not to trust its most fundamental processes [i.e. elections].”
“The competition with the big lie is not just, or even primarily, about fact checking. It’s a competition between different models of belonging: can we build alternative communities that are more benign and yet fulfilling than the ones offered by the conspiracy theorists?”
Perhaps the best solution for the GOP would be to find an alternative to Trump as the Republican candidate in 2024. It would need to be someone who could win the trust of Trump’s supporters by being seen as their champion, taking up some of the causes that he supported, whilst pointing out that he has alienated many Americans because of the danger he poses to democracy. A return of the traditional Republican respect for the US Constitution would be welcome.
The following sub-sections of Edition 4 of the PatternsofPower books are also relevant:
Populism in Democracies (126.96.36.199) focuses on the risk posed to democracy by Trump’s successful harnessing of anti-establishment sentiment;
Conspiracy Theories (188.8.131.52) focuses on why vulnerable people cling to comforting alternative pictures of reality.