David Pratt on The World: Are the once-mighty Republicans now simply the Trump cult?

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Exactly one week after impeaching Donald Trump, America on Wednesday will inaugurate Joe Biden as its next president. As the Republican Party finds itself cast into a political wilderness, Foreign Editor David Pratt looks at where the GOP goes from here

There was always going to be something of a scorched-earth response by Donald Trump to leaving office after losing last November’s presidential election.

Make chaos, create trouble, if I can’t have it then no-one else can has long been a leitmotif of the Trump political strategy even before he set foot in the White House.

A long-recognised feature of extremism has also always been a predilection to attack its own side.

Few within the US Republican Party, however, could ever have imagined that Trump’s extremism would wreak the carnage that it has within their own ranks these past weeks. 

On the face of it there is nothing very “grand” about the “old party” right now. Instead, it finds itself in a political wilderness of its own making, facing both an identity crisis and what is shaping up to be a bitter struggle for control of the GOP in the months and years ahead.  

Already the view of many opponents and detractors is hell mend them. It’s what those Republicans who have supported, enabled, and encouraged Trump these past four years deserve, critics insist, the GOP having shown interest only in staying in power rather than making principled stands. To that end the same critics say that Trump has effectively recast the GOP in his own selfish, opportunist image.  

Some prominent American commentators have already made clear how much they see it as an opportunity to recast American party politics for the better, with a few even looking forward to splits within the GOP. 

“Think about what they’ve done. All these Trump-cult lawmakers willingly promoted Trump’s Big Lie … and on the basis of that Big Lie, eight Republican senators and 139 House members voted to nullify Joe Biden’s electoral victory. That is sick … that is why I hope the party splits,” observed well-known New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman last week, pulling no punches.   

Following the attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters, many political pundits now say the Republicans find themselves between a rock and hard place when it comes to keeping sweet those Americans who make up the core of their voter support.  

According to long-time Republican strategist and communication consultant Matt Mackowiak, the dilemma revolves around a central question. “We can’t win without Trump’s base; the question is, can we hold onto Trump’s base without Trump?” 

Republican voters are now polarised between those who said that Trump and his allies went too far in contesting the election and those who say they didn’t go far enough. Neither group are voters the Republican Party can afford to lose as it enters a challenging period against a Biden presidency that won the most votes of any candidate in US history.  

In the wake of the damaging events in Washington on January 6, journalists and pollsters alike have been taking to America’s streets to try to gauge the mood of the Republican Party faithful.  

“The party is going to be totally broken if it abandons Trump,” Paul Foster, a 65-year-old painter and decorator in Ellsworth, Maine, told Reuters news agency. Foster is angry at party leaders for refusing to back the president’s claims that the election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes and predicts that Trump loyalists will spin off into a new third party. 

By contrast, Marc Cupelo, a retired business consultant in Syracuse, New York, couldn’t feel more differently. A lifelong Republican, he regretted voting for Trump as he watched the president’s backers storm the Capitol, inspired by Trump’s fiery rhetoric and false election-fraud claims.  

Cupelo is now of the view that Trump should be banished from the party and it should refashion itself in less divisive mode, free of the “twisted values” held by some of his supporters. 

“I just wish he would run away with his tail between his legs,” Cupelo told Reuters, part of a snapshot glimpse into the duality of Republican voter thinking common across America.  

Faced with such differing views, whoever is tasked with leading the Republican Party post-Trump will need to consider how they will maintain the die-hard support of his “base”, while working to regain more moderate voters who defected from the party in the 2020 election.  

Some Trump acolytes are firmly of the view that the attack on the Capitol represents a huge setback for Trump’s “movement”. 

“A lot of the life was sucked out” of that effort by the Capitol uprising, says Alex Bruesewitz, who heads the conservative consulting firm X Strategies and helped organise pro-Trump protests of the election results. 

It allowed Trump’s Republican critics to say “we told you so – Trump is a threat”, said Bruesewitz in an interview with Reuters. He says that before the attack on the Capitol he had envisioned Trump’s base forming a Tea Party-like movement, mounting primary challenges against moderate, anti-Trump Republicans, and shaping the GOP permanently in Trump’s image. 

Now, says Bruesewitz, “there’s going to be a lot of jockeying for control of the party over the next two years” as Republicans nervously eye the 2024 presidential race. 

For the moment though the party’s problems are more immediate, bearing down heavily and taking a toll in various ways. The reckoning for the GOP is not just restricted to within its own political ranks but with corporate America.  

Money has always made the wheels of power in Washington go round. Hardly surprising then that the decision by at least a dozen US corporations that they would reconsider donating money from their political-action committees (PAC) to politicians who sided with Trump’s challenge to the election results have made many Republicans sit up and take notice. 

According to data from the nonpartisan Centre for Responsive Politics cited by The Wall Street Journal, the GOP had already seen its share of corporate PAC donations shrink compared with eight years ago.  

In the 2012 election, after the GOP had won control of the House during the Obama administration, Republicans received 63 per cent of the $365 million given by business PACs. In 2020, Republicans got 57% of corporate PAC donations.  

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From a fundraising perspective, things in the wake of Trump have left many Republicans in panic over the drying up of cash.

As one GOP official put it, the party is now looking at “a rough six months” on the corporate donor front. 

The announcements by Amazon.com Inc, General Electric Co, Dow Inc, AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp, Verizon Communications Inc, American Express Co, Airbnb Inc, Cisco Systems Inc, Best Buy Co Inc and Mastercard Inc, among others, threaten to throttle fundraising.  

Adding to the bleak news on the funding front the death last week of Sheldon Adelson, the US casino magnate one of the party’s biggest donors and early backer of Trump, left the GOP without another of its foremost supporters. 

Writing last week, Hayes Brown, a columnist with the US broadcaster MSNBC, wryly described how under Trump the Republicans’ money bag “has been not just fumbled; it has been dropped, kicked and set on fire a la the Joker’s rampage in the Batman movie The Dark Knight”. 

Trump’s brand has been tarnished before “but now it’s straight-up toxic, a fate Republicans are scrambling not to share”, added Brown. 

On Friday, the Washington-based political news website The Hill detailed the extent to which Republicans are scrambling to contain the fallout of the donor freeze. 

It reported that House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who voted to reject electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, had been calling existing donors trying to calm nerves, assuring them that despite the attack at the Capitol the Republican party can work with the incoming Biden administration 

“He’s trying to calm down donors. I think he’s trying to assure them that they want to work with President Biden and the vote did not mean that they won’t support Biden initiatives, like infrastructure, debt ceiling, Covid relief,” a Republican donor said. 
One lobbyist cited by The Hill described McCarthy’s calls to donors more colourfully. “I would equate it to trying to get a plane out of a spin, trying to level the wings,” the lobbyist said.  

Concerned as many within the GOP are about the donor freeze, some Republicans, according to strategists, will doubtless regard the party as better off were pressure from Trump alleviated and he was prevented from running again. His presence they say, even if not a candidate in 2024, only freezes out or intimidates potential successors and holds the party back from moving on in new directions.  

But among the Republicans keen to move on without Trump there undoubtedly remains concern that he will continue to control the party as its de facto leader, weighing down the more traditional wing of the GOP from wresting back control.  

Examining why so many Republicans will likely continue to stick with Trump, US journalists and analysts Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan on CNN recently came to three conclusions.  

The first of these was a “physical fear” among some GOP officials for their lives. CNN cited long-time Republican strategist and Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson who quoted two house Republicans as saying they were “terrified of the mob.”  

The second reason given by the CNN analysts was “party fear” and how the GOP had been “remade in the years since Trump announced his presidential bid in 2015”, making for a body politic that went along unquestioningly with his bidding.  

And, finally, was “primary fear” whereby many GOP House members are far more worried about losing their seats to a fellow Republican in a primary challenge than they are to losing to a Democrat in a general election.  

“Moderate Republicans who are concerned about being outflanked by a challenger on the right may therefore fall in line with more outspoken and extreme Congress members to save their own skin,” CNN concluded. 

Some firmly believe the odds are stacked against “moderates” prevailing within the party bedevilled as they are by the “depth and age of the internal rot”, as Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh recently dubbed it. 

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“Republicans have to undo decades of flirtation with paranoid elements, not just five years’ worth. Whether we date it to the congressional midterm election of 1994, or Barry Goldwater’s White House bid in 1964, or the McCarthyite 1950s, the party has not policed its right flank for a long time,” Ganesh recently explained.

“Few Republicans who connived at this style of politics expected it to morph out of control. But nor should they pretend it is a recent aberration, and that includes the otherwise-vindicated Never Trumpers. The rich genre of commentary on whether there will be Trumpism after Mr Trump tends to gloss over the Trumpism before Mr Trump, “Ganesh added.  

For the moment, as events still unfold over Trump’s impeachment and this week, and we see the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden amid security concerns across America, frankly it’s not clear where the Republican Party goes from here.  

Whether GOP officials like him or loathe him, for the time being the party doesn’t yet have another “charismatic” national leader who has really proved themselves capable of capturing voters’ attention and speaking to them about the country in existentialist terms, as Trump does.  

There is, of course, no shortage of those who might try to lay claim to Trump’s GOP throne. For some time now names have been mentioned, among them senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri.

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The governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Trump cabinet members including secretary of state Mike Pompeo have all been listed even if some have since been discredited following the attack on the Capitol.  

Talking to The New Yorker magazine before the November presidential election, Ian Bassin, former associate White House counsel and founder of the think tank Protect Democracy, voiced the fears that many now have over Trump’s legacy. 

“Trump 2.0 is what terrifies me, someone who says ‘Oh, America is open to a strongman kind of government, but I can do it more competently.’” 

Then there are those including prominent US historian Professor Lisa McGirr who warn that Trump’s appeal is not just a cult of personality but grounded in a set of deeply-rooted and increasingly widespread ideas within the Republican Party.  

Only time will tell whether such an assessment is accurate or if the Grand Old Party has learned a stinging lesson and instead choses to move in very different direction. At the moment, though, it remains very much stuck between a rock and hard place. 

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