Donald Trump may have left the White House, but his shadow still looms large in Washington and the Republican party as the Senate prepares for his second impeachment trial.
The 50 Republicans in the Senate are grappling with how to appease Trump’s supporters, who still make up a hefty share of the party’s base, while acknowledging that the former president incited the 6 January attack on the US Capitol.
The senators’ quandary underscores how Republican lawmakers remain tethered to Trump, even after his term in office has ended, and it raises questions about in which direction the party will move forward when so much of its base is still loyal to a president who oversaw the loss of both chambers of Congress and the White House.
Trump’s continued power over Republican lawmakers was on full display last week, as 45 senators voted to pre-emptively dismiss the impeachment trial. The senators avoided defending Trump’s behavior on 6 January, instead arguing that it was unconstitutional to impeach a former president.
“Impeachment is for removal from office, and the accused here has already left office,” said Rand Paul, who led the charge to dismiss the trial. The Kentucky Republican added that the trial would “drag our great country down into the gutter of rancor and vitriol”.
Assuming the 45 Republican senators who supported dismissing the trial also vote to acquit Trump, there is no chance that the former president will be convicted for incitement of insurrection. It would take 17 Republican senators, along with every Senate Democrat, to convict Trump.
Tara Setmayer, a conservative commentator who left the Republican party in November, described the senators’ support for dismissing the trial as “the most craven example” of Republican lawmakers’ unwillingness to stand up to Trump.
It’s mind-boggling when you look at how many opportunities the party has had to take the exit ramp and get away from Trumpism
“It really is mind-boggling when you look at how many opportunities the party has had to take the exit ramp and get away from Trumpism,” Setmayer said. “The result has become that the Republican party now is an anti-democratic, illiberal, pro-seditionist party.”
The problem for Republican lawmakers who may want to split with Trump is that the former president remains overwhelmingly popular with the party’s base. According to an NBC News poll taken after the Capitol attack, 87% of Republicans still approve of Trump’s performance as president. Reports that Trump has considered launching a third party have only intensified Republicans’ fears of being challenged from the right.
Trump’s popularity has left Republican lawmakers with three main options: stay in the former president’s good graces, leave office, or risk getting primaried by a Trumpian opponent. This dynamic played out last week, as one prominent Republican senator announced his retirement and a pro-impeachment congresswoman faced the threat of a pro-Trump primary challenge.
Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, announced last Monday that he would not seek another term, raising Democrats’ hopes of flipping his seat next year. In a statement explaining his decision, Portman said, “We live in an increasingly polarized country where members of both parties are being pushed further to the right and further to the left, and that means too few people who are actively looking to find common ground.”
Three days after Portman’s announcement, congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida held a rally in Wyoming to rail against Liz Cheney, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month. Gaetz, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in Congress, told a crowd of about 800 in Cheyenne, “We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican party, and I intend to win it.”
Trump loyalists like Gaetz are counting on the idea that the president’s popularity with the Republican base can carry them to victory, but that philosophy doesn’t have a successful track record. Since Trump took office in 2017, Democrats have taken control of the House, the Senate and the White House.
“Being negative and being against the liberals might be sufficient to win a couple of elections, but it’s not sufficient to form a governing coalition. Eventually you have to be for something, as well as against something,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Right now, the American conservative voter base is divided on what they’re for, but they’re united on what they’re against.”
The ideological division among conservatives was evident in December, when Trump called for larger stimulus checks as part of a coronavirus relief package. The legislation passed by Congress included checks of $600 for most Americans, but the then-president said the payments should be much larger, up to $2,000.
That number was immediately rejected by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who refused to consider a House-passed bill that would approve the larger checks. But according to polling, 72% of Trump voters agreed with the former president that $600 checks were not sufficient.
“The Republican party has to come to grips with where the people who are open to voting for a conservative party are right now, and they’re actually on a host of issues closer to where Trump is than where the pre-Trump party was,” Olsen said.
Those policy differences have raised the question of whether the Republican party is on track to splinter, with one faction sticking with Trumpism and the other focusing on traditional conservative values such as small government and deficit reduction.
“There’s a healthy debate about, should we just let the Republican party wither and die on the Trumpism vine and start a new party? Because this path for the Republican party is untenable,” Setmayer said.
In that sense, Republican senators’ votes in the impeachment trial may provide some of the first clues as to how the party will navigate this ideological civil war. After all, if Trump is acquitted, he would be able to launch another White House bid in 2024, giving Republicans the opportunity to re-nominate the former president.
“There will be a lot to write about over the next four years on this topic,” Olsen said. “Impeachment will only be the beginning of this story, not anywhere close to the end.”