For all Trump’s failures and misdeeds, before Jan. 6 there was every reason to believe that his hold on the party would be undiminished; that the members of the GOP base would be unflagging in their adoration for him. But the Capitol insurrection may have changed everything.
The Pew Research Center has released a large new poll taken after last Wednesday, and while it remains to be seen if the results hold up over time and in other surveys, they are remarkable:
Donald Trump is leaving the White House with the lowest job approval of his presidency (29%) and increasingly negative ratings for his post-election conduct. The share of voters who rate Trump’s conduct since the election as only fair or poor has risen from 68% in November to 76%, with virtually all of the increase coming in his “poor” ratings (62% now, 54% then).Trump voters, in particular, have grown more critical of their candidate’s post-election conduct. The share of his supporters who describe his conduct as poor has doubled over the past two months, from 10% to 20%.
This is not to say that a wave of sanity has swept through the Republican electorate; 64 percent of Republicans still believe that Trump actually won the 2020 election. But his approval among his party has dropped to 60 percent, and when asked whether they’d like to see Trump remain a major political figure for years to come, only 57 percent of Republicans said yes, while 40 percent said no. (Overall, only 29 percent of those polled said they’ll like to see him remain a major figure.)
It appears that while Trump could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any support, the same could not be said of his inciting an insurrection.
The image of Trump’s most loyal supporters rampaging through the Capitol will haunt his post-presidency. The smashed windows, the overturned furniture, the Confederate flags, the police officers beaten, the deranged hatred for democracy itself — those will be the things Trump cannot escape with the rebranding he surely is already planning.
That Trump’s approval has fallen into the 20s (at least in this poll) inevitably reminds one of the last Republican president, who also left office in disgrace as he passed off multiple crises to his successor. When he departed, George W. Bush’s approval had also dipped that low; at one point Gallup recorded it at 25 percent.
Among other things, it meant that even Republicans who in the days after 9/11 had treated Bush like a kind of living god wanted no more to do with him. They started to highlight the times they had disagreed with his policy choices, and began claiming that he wasn’t a true conservative because he didn’t cut federal spending.
As time went on, it became not just possible but advantageous for them to distance themselves from Bush. That was never more evident than during the 2016 presidential campaign, when the Republican candidates found themselves insisting that his defining initiative, the Iraq War, had been a mistake (though Dubya’s brother Jeb couldn’t quite bring himself to say it).
What mattered most in the end wasn’t that Bush had been a terrible president (he was) or that he somehow betrayed conservative principles (he didn’t). What mattered was that he was a loser. And in politics nobody wants to be associated with a loser.
People who lose presidential campaigns can be rehabilitated — but only after a period of absence, and only in limited ways. Democrats may offer an affectionate chuckle at Michael Dukakis’s turkey-carcass reclamation project, but they aren’t looking for him to spearhead a political movement. Even those who have stayed in politics after their loss — John Kerry, John McCain, Mitt Romney — can find ways to be influential, but they don’t lead a political faction.
Of course, precedents don’t really apply to Trump. Unlike so many others, he leads a true cult of personality, even if it’s a shrinking one. But you can bet that potential 2024 candidates like Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) or former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley are watching Trump’s approval closely to see how closely they should stick by him.
And when we consider the nature of Trump’s post-presidency, it’s almost impossible to overstate how important it is that he won’t have access to Twitter (unless the company restores it). Twitter has not just been a megaphone for him; it was a means to capture the attention of every news organization and then leverage that into limitless audiences.
In order to maintain influence and control within the GOP, Trump needs constant attention. It’s never going to be enough for him to call in to “Fox & Friends” or do an interview with Newsmax. For Republicans to fear him, he has to loom over them every day, shouting in their ears and stirring up controversies.
Many Republicans fervently hope that he will not; that rather than kowtowing to him (which is soul-sucking) or challenging him (which is fraught with risk), they’ll be able to just ignore him.
We shouldn’t overstate things; there are still enormous incentives for most Republican politicians to continue treating Trump as the leader of their party, including the fact that many of them now believe that if they don’t do what he wants, his supporters will literally kill them and their families.
But it’s possible, just possible, that Trump’s influence will fade, and we’ll see the Capitol insurrection as the moment that made the difference. At least something good could come of it.
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