Opinion

Republicans are leaving the light on for Trump

The GOP can't repudiate Trump because they know he might come back

As the dust settles from former President Trump's weekend acquittal in the Senate on charges of inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the question now becomes whether the GOP still belongs to the 45th president or whether it will be inherited by someone else. Those looking for some upside in the Republican Party selling out the interests of the country twice in a year have glommed onto the idea that the very modestly bipartisan nature of both the impeachment in the House and the conviction vote in the Senate represents some kind of repudiation of Trump, perhaps even the beginning of a return to normalcy and sanity in Republican politics.

Anything is possible, but that doesn't seem likely.

Wishcasting the denouement of Trumpism is alluring. Seth Ackerman, the executive editor of the lefty magazine Jacobin, wrote on Twitter right before the inauguration that the expectation of Trump's dominance of the party in 2024 "is ludicrous" and then took a victory lap after seven Senate Republicans joined with Democrats in the failed effort to convict. Bloomberg's Jonathan Bernstein argues that the vote was a "strong bipartisan repudiation" of Trump and presumably that it might have consequences. The Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote of Trump's impeachment in the House as "the most bipartisan vote in history." In the Claremont Review of Books, William Voegeli writes that right-wing populism "will need more disciplined thinkers to flesh out and integrate its strongest ideas," with the implication that Trump will not be that person.

This kind of thinking has been a staple of the past five years. It was the fervent hope that a decisive break with Trump was just around the corner, right after the next scandal or when the polling got bad enough or when new revelations splashed front pages about his past conduct. For those of us on the left, it was a vision of a post-Trump future whereby the American people recognize the disaster of the last four years and move decisively in another direction. For conservatives on the right who agreed with the general policy thrust of Trump but believed him to be a personal liability, it was the possibility of recreating his politics without him.

Who among us hasn't indulged in this fantasy at one point or another, if for no other reason than to justify our continued faith in humanity? We wanted elected Republicans to do the right thing for the country, to see their incentives and choices the way we did, and again and again they have let us down, because most of them think even a fallen, compromised Republican Party led by a corrupt madman is better for the United States than letting Democrats wield power. That's why more than half of the party's congressional caucus signed onto the deranged effort to overturn President Biden's victory.

What happened on Saturday, therefore, was merely another in a long line of such disappointments. Sure, seven votes for conviction is more than the single vote they got for Trump's first impeachment trial. But don't pop the corks on that champagne just yet. This isn't the competition for the baseball Hall of Fame, where an incremental increase in votes from year to year augers future success on the next ballot.

There are 261 Republicans in Congress, and 244 of them — 93 percent — voted to let Trump skate, either because they were too afraid of a primary challenge or because they truly didn't think he did anything wrong. Are we supposed to be impressed? At this rate it would take a decade to get a majority of the party to repudiate Trump.

Few of Trump's Brutuses were taking any real risks. Consider the GOP senators who turned on Trump on Saturday. Two of them are retiring — Richard Burr (N.C.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.). Two more — Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) — have already successfully detached themselves from the political menace of the radicalized Republican primary electorate, Murkowski by winning her seat as an independent and Romney by virtue of his unique status as King of the Mormons. The last three — Bill Cassidy (La.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), and Susan Collins (Maine) — were just re-elected and won't have to face primary voters until 2026.

Of course, another dozen or so Senate Republicans who just started their six-year terms voted to acquit, so the conviction group certainly deserves some credit. But let's not pretend that they are the leading edge of an emerging anti-Trump trend in Republican politics. At the end of the day, all of the post-hoc denunciations and sharp words meant nothing more than the expressions of "deep concern" and the only-on-background sniping to reporters that characterized Trump's four years in office.

Right now, elected Republicans who aren't terminally in the tank for the former president are waiting to see what he's going to do. If Trump slinks back to the steakhouse and the golf course for good, disavows a 2024 run, and ensures that none of his unbearable children announce significant bids for public office, perhaps his brand of politics will die with him. That might create the permission structure for leading Republicans to begin the process of retooling the party to compete for national majorities in a way it hasn't in a generation.

But if Trump runs again, they'd rather be on what passes for his good side, and perhaps more importantly, they want to remain in the good graces of the QAnon shamans and zip-tie-wielding militiamen that make up a disturbing portion of his following. It's a kind of right-wing Pascal's Wager, whereby even if Trump is not politically resurrected from the dead, they have lost nothing in the effort of guarding against it.

But let's be clear about what they are doing. Out of fear or convenience, they are leaving the lights on for him. They are waiting for the groundhog to declare whether there will be four more years of Trump. They are transferring their own agency, the power and influence that they could wield to build an alternative to Trumpism and fight for it, to Donald Trump and his family and hoping for the best.

This strategy has come to ruin so many times in the Trump era that it's easy to lose count. Polls show Trump remains overwhelmingly popular with the GOP base, and that many Republicans are clamoring for a third party, almost certainly as a vehicle for Trumpism to defeat any remaining anti-Trump animus within the Republican Party.

That seems unnecessary. Judging from Republican impeachment votes in Congress, the U.S. already has a Trump Party called the GOP, and if there is to be a third-party alternative, it will almost certainly be a lonely effort mounted by Republican dissidents who are already out of favor with the base. The Republican votes for impeachment and conviction will ultimately mean nothing if not paired with deliberate political action to rescue the party, spearheaded by someone with enough courage to face the voters after doing the deed. Until then, the only ones risking repudiation are those who dare to defy Trump and his entire movement.

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