Will Trump start his own party? How his ongoing popularity threatens Republican unity

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Joe Sommerlad
·7 min read
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 (Reuters)
(Reuters)

“This isn’t their Republican Party anymore, this is Donald Trump’s Republican Party!” the ex-president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, declared at the Save America Rally that preceded last month’s riot at the US Capitol.

The event held on the Ellipse near the National Mall in Washington, DC, on 6 January was staged not just to protest the reality TV star’s election defeat to Joe Biden, its attendees taken in by Mr Trump’s false claims that he was the victim of a massive voter fraud conspiracy at the polls, but to exert pressure on Republican senators meeting to formally ratify the Electoral College results in Congress.

“They need to fight for Trump, because if not, I’m gonna be in your backyard in a couple of months,” Don Jr added, threatening to subject disloyal Republicans to primary challenges from MAGA insurgent candidates if they did not support the cause. “If you’re gonna be the zero and not the hero, we’re coming for you.”

President Trump himself used his own speech at the same gathering, the subject of his subsequent impeachment by the House of Representatives for “incitement of insurrection”, to urge his own vice president, Mike Pence, to weaponise his traditionally ceremonial role in proceedings to thwart the certification.

Mr Pence’s refusal led the rampaging mob to chant “Hang Mike Pence!”, a war cry that shockingly illustrated the growing schism between grassroots Trump loyalists and the party’s conservative establishment.

“My father has started a movement, and this movement will never, ever die,” Don Jr’s brother Eric said at the same rally, warning the GOP that MAGA “will transcend [Donald Trump], it will transcend all of us”.

Those tensions remain intact almost seven weeks on from the siege on the Capitol, with a Suffolk University-USA Today poll published on Sunday finding that 46 per cent of Republican voters would be prepared to defect to a third party should Mr Trump choose to start one.

The same poll also found that 85 per cent of respondents said they would vote for the 45th president should he run again for the presidency in 2024 while 80 per cent said they would not vote for any Republican who had supported his impeachment in the House.

Wyoming senator Liz Cheney, daughter of George W Bush’s all-powerful vice president Dick Cheney, has already felt the wrath of the party’s pro-Trump wing for her condemnatory vote, which saw her rebuke Mr Trump by saying: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

In response, Trumpian Florida congressman Matt Gaetz travelled considerably out of his way to campaign against her in her own deep red state, where Mr Trump won 70 per cent of the turnout in November, and told a crowd in Cheyenne on 29 January: “We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and I intend to win it.

“You can help me break a corrupt system. You can send a representative who actually represents you, and you can send Liz Cheney home – back home to Washington, DC.”

While she duly survived an internal vote on 4 February allowing her to stay on as the party’s third-ranking member in the House, it was clear that further attempts to distance the GOP from Mr Trump would not be allowed to pass without consequences, which might explain why just seven Republicans dared to break ranks to vote for conviction at his Senate impeachment trial on 13 February.

The same Suffolk-USA Today survey also saw half of respondents saying they expected their representatives to be “more loyal” to Mr Trump, a stance that indicates a break with even Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who backed the president’s acquittal while insisting he remained “practically and morally responsible” for the Capitol riot, an opinion that saw Mr McConnell branded “a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack” by Mr Trump in return.

But how likely is it the ex-president will capitalise on the strong support he continues to enjoy to start his own conservative party, free of dissent from the likes of Ms Cheney, Mr McConnell and Mitt Romney?

Maggie Haberman, a New York Times reporter who has covered Trumpism in detail, has suggested Mr Trump – ensconced at his palatial Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago since leaving the White House on 20 January – has already abandoned the idea, after toying with it as a retaliatory measure to lash out against Republican disloyalty.

“Trump has been talked out of that and is making clear to people he isn’t pursuing it,” she tweeted on 24 January, citing “people familiar with his thinking”.

“There’s also the fact that threatening a third party while simultaneously threatening primaries makes no sense, which some folks gently pointed out to him,” she added.

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The former president has offered nothing definite on his future plans in public yet but hinted to Newsmax last week that he could run in 2024 while also suggesting he might launch his own conservative-friendly social media platform, having been permanently suspended from Twitter.

However, he is due to address the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on 28 February and will reportedly use the platform for a “show of force”, according to Axios, reminding his party he is still in charge, expects to play kingmaker for the foreseeable future and is its “presumptive 2024 nominee”.

Republican elected officials have likewise largely stayed quiet on his prospects, although the likes of Mr Gaetz have repeatedly pledged their loyalty while House minority whip Steve Scalise was still refusing to concede that Mr Biden had won the election fairly during an interview on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

Mr Trump could also be beaten to it, with over 100 ex-Republican officials reportedly meeting to discuss the creation of an anti-Trump “centre-right party” in DC last week, exploring the idea after another poll from Gallop revealed that 62 per cent of US adults believe the current Republican and Democratic parties, which have fought it out since the Civil War, “do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”

But the obstacles to anyone starting a credible third political party in America – even as high-profile and popular a showman as Donald Trump – remain vast, elections analyst Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight has argued.

“They have a harder time raising money, finding volunteers, paying workers and getting enough signatures to qualify to appear on a ballot than their Democratic and Republican counterparts,” he says.

“As a result of these challenges, it’s more difficult for minor parties to even be up for consideration in November, much less win.

“Voters’ strong attachment to the major parties has also limited the ability of third parties to grow. Although a huge share of voters claim they’re independent, the reality is that roughly nine in 10 Americans identify with one of the two major parties, and, by and large, that’s been the case for decades.”

Requiring star power, capital and publicity, third parties also need a meaningful cause to rally around, not merely a deposed leader’s wounded ego.

“Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die,” historian Richard Hofstadter observes in his 2011 book The Age of Reform about the US political landscape.

While the present mood of anti-establishment MAGA resentment might not be sufficient to power a lasting political force, for John Kroger of the Aspen Institute, the anti-Trump Republican splinter group could actually have a chance of succeeding if it managed to appeal to moderate Democrats as well and “exploit their concerns about taxes, school closures, and public safety, and grab control of the suburbs”.

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