Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021 | 2 a.m.
That there is a backlash against the seven Republican senators who voted to convict former President Donald Trump of inciting a mob against Congress is not that shocking. What is shocking is how fast it happened.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, for example, was immediately censured by the Louisiana Republican Party. “We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the vote today by Cassidy to convict former President Trump,” the party announced on Twitter. Another vote to convict, Richard Burr of North Carolina, was similarly rebuked by his state party, which censured him Monday. Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are also in hot water with their respective state parties, which see a vote against Trump as tantamount to treason. “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing or whatever he said he’s doing,” one Pennsylvania Republican Party official explained. “We sent him there to represent us.”
That this backlash was completely expected, even banal, should tell you everything you need to know about the so-called civil war in the Republican Party. It doesn’t exist. Outside of a rump faction of (occasional) dissidents, there is no truly meaningful anti-Trump opposition within the party. The civil war, such as it was, ended 4 1/2 years ago when Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president.
If there’s a conflict, it’s less a war and more a small skirmish with an outmatched and outnumbered opponent. Seventy-five percent of Republicans want Trump to continue to “play a prominent role in the Republican Party,” according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University, and 87% say he should be allowed to “hold elected office in the future.” A recent survey from Morning Consult likewise shows Trump far ahead of his rivals in a hypothetical 2024 matchup, with 54% support versus 12% for the runner-up, Mike Pence.
The Republican Party belongs to Trump for as long as he wants it. Its most prominent politicians will follow his lead and attempt to build on his example. His children and in-laws will have a place as heirs to his legacy. If Trump decides to seek the White House for a second term, the nomination is almost certainly his to lose.
What does it mean, in practice, for Trump to retain this strong a hold over the Republican Party? Since “Trumpism” isn’t a policy platform as much as it is singular devotion to the man himself, a Trumpified Republican Party is one in which candidates do everything they can to shape themselves in his image. Just look at the candidates who would like to be president, if Trump doesn’t run. Most of them were, at some point before he became president, critics, with harsh words for Trump’s policies, personality and proclivities. These days, however, they’re his biggest fans.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has adopted a version of Trump’s Twitter presence, using the platform to stoke anti-liberal resentment and attack perceived cultural enemies. Cruz, who by virtue of his legislative seat and second-place finish in the last Republican primary, is one of the most high-profile politicians in the country. But he has more to say about personnel changes at Disney than the problems facing his constituents.
Nikki Haley hasn’t tried to emulate Trump, but she knows not to keep too much distance between them. In December, when Trump was still working to overturn the election through the courts, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor defended him to Politico’s Tim Alberta. “He believes he’s following that oath,” Haley said of the then-president. “This would be different if he was being deceptive.” Just a few weeks later, after the attack on the Capitol, when it looked for a moment like Republicans might break with Trump, she told a crowd at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting that “His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.” But when it was clear that Trump was still in command of the party, she switched gears. “Give the man a break!” she said in an interview on Fox News in late January arguing against impeachment.
Even state and legislative candidates are borrowing from Trump and aligning themselves with his political movement. Here where I live, in Virginia, Amanda Chase and Kirk Cox, Republican candidates for governor, are running on guns and “cancel culture,” with Chase still treating Trump as if he were the rightful president. Josh Mandel, running for Senate in Ohio, reintroduced himself to voters as a pro-MAGA Republican. “I’m going to Washington to advance a Trump America First Agenda and to stand up for economic freedom and individual liberty,” he told Fox News.
The impeachment trial was the Republican Party’s last chance to rid itself of Trump. Had 10 more Republicans joined their colleagues in the Senate, the former president would have been on the way to being barred from future office. Presidential hopefuls like Cruz (or Josh Hawley or Marco Rubio) would have cleared out at least one obstacle to their ambition. But, in a repeat of the 2016 primary, no one wants to take the risk of losing his supporters and thus any chance at the nomination or the White House.
Just as it was five years ago, the hope is to come ahead somehow without confronting Trump, to win his voters without challenging his status among Republicans. Maybe, if Trump leaves politics to monetize his post-presidency, this will work. So far, that is not looking likely; Trump still speaks as if he is the party and the party is him. In a statement attacking Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, Trump bragged that he was responsible for what Republican success there was last year. “In 2020, I received the most votes of any sitting president in history, almost 75,000,000. Every incumbent House Republican won for the first time in decades, and we flipped 15 seats, almost costing Nancy Pelosi her job.”
With Trump’s grip on the party and its image what it is, the outcome we’re most likely to see is the one we already experienced: a Republican Party with Trump at its head, committed to nothing but his insatiable ego.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.