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The presidency of Donald Trump may be ending with both a bang and a whimper: one insurrection, two impeachments and no more characters on Twitter. But the legacy he leaves to American politics – and especially the Republican party – will not end neatly with the inauguration of his successor.
That’s not just because Trump has toyed openly with the notion of running for president again in four years. Trump may or may not be able or willing to run for elected office again, if he survives his second impeachment trial and the multiple investigations into his business and tax affairs.
Whether or not he stalks Washington on social media or television, Trump leaves the nation’s capital having cleaved his own party in two.
On one side is the Trumpist base, willing to follow an autocratic leader wherever his whims lead: blowing up democratic and diplomatic norms, while stoking up racial and social divisions. On the other are establishment conservatives, committed to the institutions and culture that have served their traditional priorities: business, national security and suburban privilege.
That schism was on display and on the record as 10 House Republicans – including Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican leader – voted for Trump’s impeachment this week, joining Democrats for the most bipartisan impeachment vote in American history. That left 197 Republicans voting to support Trump, reflecting the overwhelming sentiment of the party.
According to recent polling by Quinnipiac University, Trump may have plunged to a new low of 33% in his approval ratings, but fully 71% of Republicans still think he’s doing a great job as president.
Such numbers help explain the wobbling positions of Republican congressional leaders.
Senator Mitch McConnell has let it be known that he welcomes Trump’s impeachment but has curiously not taken a position on convicting the outgoing president – except to delay his trial. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, voted against impeachment while also blaming Trump for inciting insurrection. They are ironically leading a party that once built an entire election campaign around attacking the Democrats for flip-flopping.
These are not new divisions for the Republican party: their roots lie in past divisions like Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork rebellion, Ross Perot’s barn-cleaning reforms, Barry Goldwater’s embrace of extremism and Joe McCarthy’s red scare. But no other Republican president since Richard Nixon has left his party in such a conflicted state, and Nixon himself was ejected from the White House by an establishment led by Goldwater himself.
Seasoned conservative intellectuals, operatives and analysts are frankly perplexed by what lies ahead.
Pete Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations and senior fellow at the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center, is a staunch Trump critic who does not see an immediate path beyond Trumpism.
“It was confusing to me before this week and it’s probably more confusing to me after this week what the future of the Republican party is,” he said. “The reason I say that is because prior to this week, the populist, nihilistic Trumpist movement was in the stronger position. Now it’s in a weaker position, but it doesn’t mean it’s in a weak position.”
Wehner says the party’s challenges go far beyond the current crop of Republicans in Congress.
“For all of my criticism of Republican lawmakers – and I have had a lot – I have always believed that the fundamental problem isn’t them,” he said. “It’s the base of the party that is where the pathologies are. They are very attuned to what the base wants and what their constituents want. A lot of them were acting in ways that weren’t true to what they believed or their philosophy. They felt constrained and pressured and intimidated. They are scared of Trump supporters and don’t want to be defeated in primaries.”
Since November, the dynamic has changed inside the Republican party but it’s not at all clear that the change is enough to move the party away from its obsession with Trump himself. For all the jockeying among Trump-like figures – such as senators Ted Cruz of Texas or Josh Hawley of Missouri – there may be no oxygen left after Trump consumes it all for the next four years. There may be even less oxygen for less toxic conservatives like Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s UN ambassador, or the Nebraska senator Ben Sasse.
What’s the plan and who are the leaders to do that? There’s no clear answer as of right now
“Before 6 January, there was a much more complex coalition of factions inside the Trump GOP,” says Kevin Madden, a former senior aide to Mitt Romney and congressional Republican leaders. “There was a variation of Trump supporters and skeptics who were at least united against what they believed were the excesses of the political left. That’s how he enjoyed a 90% approval rating.
“After January 6, there was a shift and the fracture in the party is more obvious and out in the open. Now it’s a split between Republicans devoted to the rule of law and those who are devoted to Donald Trump above all else. It’s too early to tell how deep that fracture is and whether it can ever be repaired but, as of right now, those devoted to Donald Trump outnumber the others.”
Madden is skeptical that anybody can challenge Trump’s hold on the party while he remains a vocal president-in-exile.
“Anyone who believes that they can just draft behind him and build or maintain support with his base while Trump himself fades out is embarking on a fool’s errand,” he says. “This was the conceit of the entire 2016 field, thinking Trump was someone else’s fight. Trump has to be confronted, otherwise the party will look and sound like him for the next 15 years. That’s the question for the so-called establishment. What’s the plan and who are the leaders to do that? There’s no clear answer as of right now.”
One clear sign of Trump’s domination is that there is no substantive debate about what amounts to Trump’s policy legacy.
There is little dispute about the wisdom of Trump’s massive deficit spending, even as Republicans say they will reject deficit spending by the Biden administration. There is little soul-searching about the nativist anti-immigrant policies of the Trump years, including the forced separation of children at the border. And there’s almost no dispute about Trump’s catastrophic response to the pandemic – from his opposition to mask-wearing, to his failures of testing and tracing, to the botched rollout of mass vaccinations.
“He hasn’t weakened the Republican party in all respects,” said Wehner. “It’s true that the Democrats have the Senate and the House and the presidency. There’s no question there’s been some cost. But there’s also no empirical doubt that Trump brought in new people and the party won down-ballot in ways that people didn’t foresee. I can’t say that Trump has been a catastrophe for the party when at the state level they are doing pretty well.”
Still, Wehner believes that the best outcome for Republicans is an open dispute about its future: “In my view, a figurative civil war is better than the alternative, which is a massacre of the good guys. Our best hope is that there’s a fight for the soul of the party.”
Could that dispute lead to a permanent rupture in the party? The United States has a poor track record with third parties, unlike European politics, where multi-party legislatures have long represented the status quo.
Michael Barone, the co-author of The Almanac of American Politics and a conservative analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, has heard it all before. “In my 60-plus years of observing these things, I’ve seen numerous prophecies that the Republican party was going out of business, and none of those prophecies has yet come true,” he said “I suppose one will some day.”