Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump crossed lines that no other president has come close to. And if there was ever any doubt, the final months of his presidency put that to rest.
From the moment President Biden was declared the winner, Trump refused to accept the results of the election, repeatedly dismissing them as rigged or fraudulent, even going so far as to pressure Republican officials, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to overturn them. This culminated in the events of Jan 6. At a rally that day, Trump told his supporters that the election was being stolen and said, “Now, it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down.” A few hours later, some of those supporters stormed the Capitol, threatening officials and destroying property. They also disrupted the certification of the Electoral College vote, usually a ceremonial affair. Five people died.
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Nevertheless, Trump still commands considerable loyalty within the Republican Party. Only 10 of 211 Republicans in the House voted to impeach him over what happened at the Capitol, and even though Trump is now facing a second impeachment trial, a procedural vote forced by Senate Republicans in late January indicates that there will not be enough votes to convict him.
This lack of a clean break among Republicans with Trump — despite being the only president to be impeached twice — raises an important question about the future of the GOP: To what extent does it remain Trump’s party?
Given the ways in which Trump defied the norms of the presidency, it can be hard to compare his track record to other presidents. However, it’s still worth looking at the role that former presidents have traditionally played in their party once they’ve left the White House, and how Trump does — and does not — fit into that mold.
Arguably no president in the modern era has left office with quite as much baggage as Trump, perhaps aside from former President Richard Nixon, who resigned from office rather than face his own impeachment. But even Nixon was able to partially rehabilitate his image post-presidency, eventually establishing himself as a foreign-policy expert whose advice was sought behind the scenes by other leaders.
Other presidents who have left the White House with a bit less baggage, like George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, have also had some success continuing to wield influence in their respective parties. Bush left with record-low approval ratings amid an economic crisis, while Clinton departed with high approval ratings but also with the scandal of impeachment. But since leaving office, both have engaged in humanitarian activities, attempting to burnish their respective reputations (perhaps with mixed success). To be sure, other voices have emerged that have led and defined their parties, but neither man has disappeared entirely from the limelight, with both Bush’s brother and Clinton’s wife later seeking the presidency. A career in politics is one possible avenue for some of Trump’s children, with rumors already swirling.
And some former presidents have had a lot of success in establishing themselves as major players in their parties. After his second term ended in 1989, Ronald Reagan remained an iconic figure among Republicans. And in the 2020 election, the Democratic Party at times seemed more and more like Barack Obama’s party than Biden’s. Obama reportedly played a pretty significant behind-the-scenes role in the primary and was a central figure at the Democratic National Convention. Part of this was because his former vice president won the nomination. But Biden also explicitly campaigned on the accomplishments of the “Obama-Biden” administration and chose a running mate who also reflects the image of a diverse, pragmatic Obama-style Democratic Party.
What’s difficult to say with Trump, however, is the extent to which future generations of Republicans will want to claim his mantle. On the one hand, it’s not actually clear that Trump had a winning electoral formula. In 2016, he built a coalition of more traditional Republican voters as well as white voters without college degrees, and that coalition was adequate for an Electoral College victory. But even growing that voter base in 2020 wasn’t enough to win reelection. When you combine this with the Republican Party’s losses in 2018 and its narrow loss of Senate control in the Georgia run-off elections in January, there are some reasons to believe that the Trump brand hasn’t been entirely good for Republican political fortunes. In fact, a number of reports suggest that congressional Republicans, as well as party donors, blame Trump for the party’s losses in Georgia.
The thing is, Trump does represent an idea that has appealed to some of his party’s voters: politics based on grievance, especially when linked to white identity. Trump has emerged as a powerful leader to this movement, claiming that the 2020 election was stolen, that the media and tech companies seek to silence voices on the right, and that institutions no longer work for “ordinary” (read: white) Americans. And while many establishment GOP members don’t agree with some of Trump’s more extreme words and actions, they have continued to defend him, or, at the very least, not really distance themselves from him. The upcoming impeachment trial and the fact that most GOP senators are likely to vote against his conviction speak to a long pattern left over from when Trump was still in office: criticize Trump’s actions, but ultimately don’t disavow him.
But while the party has maintained its steady, if uncomfortable, pattern of loyalty to Trump, the sheer number of ambitious politicians seeking to succeed Trump may leave little room for him in the party. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn have already proven, for instance, that they can grab headlines with their extreme views and actions without Trump. (And as with Trump, the media coverage is not overwhelmingly positive, and they have drawn some criticism from within their own party.) Of course, there is still a key difference between them and Trump in terms of power and influence: A group of representatives can make up a faction of a party, but only the president serves as the party’s mouthpiece.
There is another reason, though, to think that there might not be room for Trump in the Republican Party moving forward. Political science research has found that Republicans are actually quite successful in building a “farm team” in state and Congressional elections (compared to Democrats, who often struggle in this regard). This means that Republicans might not really struggle to find a replacement for Trump. It’s not hard to imagine, for instance, that there will one day be other ambitious Republicans — say, Sen. Josh Hawley or former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — seeking higher office while claiming that they are the real heir to Trump’s legacy, even if they represent marked differences in style or approach. In fact, there are a number of signs that the party is already headed in this direction, trending away from more establishment GOP types and toward more Trump-style figures.
Yes, this speaks to Trump’s continued influence on the party, but it also doesn’t necessarily leave that much room for him. It’s hard for a former president to both represent an idea and be involved in the daily politics of the party.
After the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, it seemed like some establishment GOP leaders were ready to make a break from the 45th president. But it’s telling that mainstream Republicans are still mostly reluctant to publicly criticize Trump or his actions leading up to that day. It may also be indicative of how the ideas Trump represents took hold before he was elected. His presidency gave new power to the anti-establishment wing of the party, even though the former president didn’t create this faction. Right now, the GOP looks much more like Trump’s party than that of any moderate or establishment GOP alternative. It may be up to other politicians — not Trump — to determine exactly what that means.