Opinion

Trump comes out of hiding

What will McConnell and other critical Republicans do now?

The silence has been deafening.

For the entirety of his presidency (until roughly its final 10 days), Donald Trump demanded our attention, and we gave it to him. He used his greatest skill — technologically amplified demagoguery — to assert and maintain control over his party. What began as an imperfectly consolidated hostile takeover during the 2016 GOP primaries became a one-man show by 2020.

Yes, there were dissenters over the years, but one-by-one they either fell in line or were driven from their elected offices. While Trump remained in the White House, only Utah Sen. Mitt Romney — a wealthy septuagenarian former presidential nominee, four years away from re-election, and with sizable store of good will in his home state — maintained a consistently critical stance toward the president. Everyone else folded because Trump wielded an immensely powerful whip — the tweets, the Facebook posts and videos, the rallies, the incessant coverage on cable news and other media outlets. He used them all to win the deference of Republican officials, with the party's voters deployed like a loaded gun pointed directly at their heads.

But all this changed in the days following the insurrection against Congress on Jan. 6. Two days later, Twitter temporarily suspended Trump's account. The suspension became permanent a few days later. Since then, Trump has said very little in public — and close to nothing since leaving office on Jan. 20. He even remained silent in the immediate wake of his acquittal in the second impeachment trial last Saturday, issuing just one obviously ghostwritten statement.

At least until Tuesday's broadside launched against Senate minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump's temporary dormancy emboldened some prominent Republicans to take a stand against the 45th president. Liz Cheney and nine of her colleagues in the House favored impeachment. Protected by a secret ballot, dozens more opted not to penalize Cheney for her vote. Six Republican senators then joined Romney in voting to convict Trump. This was followed by series of public statements excoriating him — with the most blistering coming from McConnell, who voted for acquittal on a technicality but denounced the former president for doing precisely what the House managers had accused him of doing — using lies to incite an insurrection against Congress.

Even before the ogre began to stir, there were signs that the post-insurrection sag in Trump's standing among Republican voters had been reversed. With the carnage of the past four years — and six weeks ago — still fresh in everyone's mind, polls have begun to show the former president far ahead of every challenger for the 2024 nomination. Meanwhile, the Republican senators who voted for conviction have been facing fury at home, including several threatened with censure by state party leaders.

And that's without Trump saying a thing to egg it on. What are we likely to see now that he's begun to do exactly that — or once he's taken it on the road to a series of rallies that are bound to be covered exhaustively by the media?

That's an interesting question, because the position that McConnell and others have now staked out — that Trump's claims about winning the election in a landslide and his victory being stolen from him were both lies — is going to run headlong into Trump continuing to push precisely that story. Except that now the story will be slightly updated, since the perpetrators of the crime — the forces that stabbed Trump and his voters in the back — will include the minority leader of the Senate and other prominent figures in the Republican Party itself.

That's an ideal position for a populist politician to find himself in — leading an army of ordinary Americans into battle against formidable enemies in positions of great institutional power. Yet Trump and his foot soldiers won't be attempting the exceedingly difficult task of taking over the institution from scratch, as they did through 2016 and the first couple years of the Trump presidency. They will instead be working to increase their hold over a party already largely in their hands. The point will be to tear down those few who stand in their way or who dared to defy them over the last few weeks, and to ensure that the cost of their treachery is so great that future acts of defiance will fizzle before they go anywhere.

The question is how Trump's critics in the party respond once the attacks pick up steam and intensity. As we can see both from the lopsided margins in the impeachment votes and the apoplectic reaction at the state level to those who turned on Trump, the critics are already in a weak position within the party. They will be in no position to try and rally opposition to the former president.

This will leave two options. The first is contrition — and a reversion, out of political self-preservation, to reticence and passivity in the face of Trump's continued and increasing hold over the party.

The second option is further defiance — but launched from outside of the GOP altogether.

I'm not usually one to predict the imminent demise of the Republican Party. The fact that Trump increased his vote total from 2016 to 2020 and came quite close to prevailing in the Electoral College last November (despite losing the popular vote by seven million) indicates that the GOP remains viable at the national level, just as the narrow margins between the parties in the House and Senate (and formidable Republican power within state legislatures) shows that it continues to be highly competitive around the country.

But that presumes the party stays together — that those within the GOP who find Trump and his imitators repulsive and dangerous keep their heads down and stay in line in the hopes of winning selective victories on policy and other fronts. If they stop doing this, lighting out on their own in search of popular support, things could change quickly and drastically.

A Republican Party in which major figures bolted in disgust to form an alternative, non-populist conservative or centrist party would likely be one severely, if not fatally, wounded. Not that the defectors would fare much better. On the contrary, they'd almost certainly do far worse than the right-wing populist rump. But neither would stand a chance against a comparatively united Democratic Party, which would be very well placed to vacuum up a significantly larger share of disaffected Republican voters than they did in 2020.

When Trump comes fully out of hiding, we will finally begin to gain clarity about the future of the Republican Party — and whether it has much of one at all.

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