President Trump will leave office Wednesday as the undisputed head of the Republican Party despite the events of the past two weeks. Most pundits think he will continue his hold over the party’s voters well into the future. Don’t bet on it.
Being out of office, however, will deprive Trump of his bully pulpit. Networks and reporters no longer have to cover his every word, and many will likely not do so. There will be those on the right who do, especially the networks and outlets that are trying to supplant dominant rivals such as Fox News. But even then, there will be competition for political news from the Biden administration and other events in Washington. Trump can comment on those, and his comments may be covered initially. But he will no longer be able to shape the news with his every breath, and that alone gives other Republicans space to enter the field.
Republicans have also learned how out of touch many of them were with their own voters. Before Trump, Republicans had either shied away from sharp words on illegal immigration or had signaled that they were more concerned with welcoming immigrants than controlling illegal border crossings. They ignored the devastation that global trade had wrought in the Midwest and other regions of the country, something Trump loudly campaigned against. They failed to grasp how afraid many evangelical Christians and others were of the creeping secularization that too often seemed like a war on traditional Christianity itself. Party orthodoxy has shifted as a result, meaning Republican voters will likely see other leaders whom they can follow.
Then there is the looming impeachment trial in the Senate. Democrats are not going to give this up, as they know hatred of Trump is the best way to keep their coalition unified and drive a wedge among Republicans. Assuming the trial goes forward despite assertions that it is not constitutional to try a president who has left office, the Senate trial will place Trump’s post-election behavior front and center of public attention. But that could work in the Republican Party’s favor, too.
GOP voters will have to listen to the evidence presented against him, especially concerning whether the election was really stolen. Many will tune that out, and Trump will marshal all his legions to persuade them to do just that. But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s seeming openness to convicting Trump means that many Republican-leaning outlets will likely not fall into line with Trump. That means many Republicans will be inclined to listen, and when they do, they will hear things they have never heard before. It’s conceivable that Republican support for Trump will quickly erode, just as it did for President Richard M. Nixon when hearings into the Watergate break-in showed he was at best a shady figure.
The combination of these factors could easily lead to a rapid decline in Trump’s hold over the party. Voters anxious about economic justice, the defense of traditional American values and religious liberty will see other figures who can ably back these concerns. These voters could also see Trump in a new light and, in many cases, reluctantly decide his time has passed.
None of this means Trump won’t remain an influence in the party for the next two years. It does, however, mean that he might no longer be the indisputable front-runner for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination should he avoid Senate conviction. Once there is space for credible alternatives to arise, he would have to engage in a novel sort of combat: battling other conservative populists who share his concerns but don’t have his baggage. There’s no reason to presume he wins that fight.
Trump partisans and opponents have the same incentive to overstate Trump’s continuing political strength. After five years of being engulfed in the Trump tsunami, though, it could just be time for his tide to flow out.
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