The final mess

The election didn’t repudiate Trump. After it was over, he brought that on himself.

The final mess

The election didn’t repudiate Trump. After it was over, he brought that on himself.
Ben Wiseman for the Washington Post. One time use only.

For those who supported Joe Biden, his victory in November was tinged with disappointment. President Trump had been beaten, but Trumpism had not. Trump won 74.2 million votes, expanding his 2016 tally even in defeat. Republicans had narrowed the Democratic margin in the House and had the chance to hold control of the Senate. Biden’s win fell short of the overwhelming, Reagan-beats-Mondale or LBJ-beats-Goldwater level that would have fully repudiated Trump.

Nicole Hemmer @pastpunditry is an associate research scholar at Columbia University and author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She is a co-founder of The Post's daily historical analysis section, Made by History.

But after two months of efforts to overturn the results, the attack on the Capitol finally did what the election could not: It made Trump — and the GOP — toxic. Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook pulled the plug on the president’s accounts. The Girl Scouts started trying to break the lease for their headquarters in a Trump-owned building in New York. A credit-card-processing company stopped handling donations to Trump’s campaign. Major corporations like Marriott and Comcast announced that they would end or suspend donations to Republicans who voted against certifying the election results. And 10 Republicans in Congress voted to impeach the president. GOP leaders who had stuck by Trump for his whole term indicated that they might abandon him. It is an ending befitting a Greek tragedy: Only Trump could bring about his own downfall.

But Trump’s base has still not abandoned him, and the flight of corporate and establishment support will only intensify his claims that the elites are out to get him — and his followers. The impulse to repudiate the president has not yet reached his true supporters.

The sudden flight of corporations from Trump and his allies in Congress comes as a shock, because the corporate alliance with the GOP has been the backbone of the party for decades. Though some business leaders backed the New Deal in the 1930s to help stimulate the nation’s economy during the Great Depression, the lion’s share of companies were wary of the new era of regulation and oversight that had begun to emerge. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers became allies of the Republican Party and the conservative movement in the decades that followed, keeping activists and politicians well-funded in their fight against government regulation.

Corporate preference for Republicans has, at times, come into conflict with the right’s social policies. When North Carolina passed anti-trans legislation in 2016, companies ranging from PayPal to Adidas to Deutsche Bank all boycotted the state, as did major sports leagues like the NBA and parts of the entertainment industry. The boycotts cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and led to the repeal of the discriminatory legislation in 2017. As Indiana governor, even Mike Pence felt corporate pressure after he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which enabled legal discrimination against LGBTQ people and triggered opposition from Apple, Eli Lilly, the NCAA and others doing business in the state. Pence eventually signed an amendment to bar discrimination under the act.

Corporations in the Trump era, though, seldom applied this kind of pressure on the administration. Trump showed early on that he would lash out at any company that dared to criticize him, drawing it into an unwanted political fight. Early in his presidency, he targeted manufacturers like General Motors and Toyota for moving factories abroad, but he was just as likely to go after companies such as Comcast and Amazon (whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post), often because he was unhappy with news coverage by NBC, which Comcast owns, or by The Post. He was lavish with his praise as well. When he first took office he called the oil company Exxon a “great company” and made its chief executive Rex Tillerson his first secretary of state, and he has repeatedly praised Tesla’s Elon Musk, calling him “one of our great geniuses” and his aerospace company “American ingenuity at its best.” Trump’s coronavirus briefings were a carnival of CEOs singing his praises during the early days of the pandemic, a show of support during a low point in his presidency.

This strong-arm approach was core to one of Trump’s major successes: his ability to pose as a populist president while retaining the loyalty of the party’s corporate base. That Trump did not split the Republican coalition but rather shored it up is one of the marvels of his time in office.

The attack on the Capitol, and Trump’s obvious lack of remorse for it, finally started to splinter the GOP. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who had abided by virtually everything Trump did up to now, said Wednesday that he’d consider voting to convict the president in an impeachment trial. Other Republicans who had backed Trump all along did the same — or outright said he should resign or be removed from office before his term ends. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) reportedly chastised Trump for blaming left-wing antifa activists for the Capitol invasion, saying, “It’s not antifa, it’s MAGA. I know. I was there,” and urging the president to “stop it” because “the election is over.” The third-ranking Republican in the House, Liz Cheney (Wyo.), was among the group that voted to impeach him Wednesday — in the most bipartisan impeachment vote in U.S. history.

So with the election lost and his social media platforms closed off, Trump has lost his hold on the GOP coalition, allowing the fractures of recent days. But while that may weaken the Republican Party, it is also likely to strengthen Trump’s base. Though corporations and some members of the GOP elite have turned on the president, he retains strong support in Congress. Indeed, no sooner had the insurrectionists been cleared from the Capitol than 147 Republicans returned to keep trying, unsuccessfully, to block the certification of the election.

And on the airwaves where election conspiracies have rattled around for months, there was little evidence of flagging loyalties even after the failed insurrection: Pro forma denunciations of violence were followed by a return to conspiracy theories and victimization complaints, the hallmarks of Trump’s politics. Tune in to Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, and you’ll hear that the election was stolen, that antifa infiltrated the Capitol mob, that the real problem is Democratic divisiveness and too-powerful social media companies. Every denunciation of the president is reframed as an attack against real Americans by elites: “woke capitalists” and leftists and establishment Republicans all lining up to try one last time to take out Trump and, by extension, the people who support him.

Because of his conspiracy theories about the election, and the attack on the Capitol they inspired, Trump will be leaving office with the lowest approval ratings of his tenure — just 38 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the failed insurrection. He’s the first president to be impeached twice, and his party will be fractured by the events this month. Yet he will also slink away from the White House with an ever-more-loyal base, one ready to follow him where he leads — even if it is further down the road of self-destruction — The Post’s poll found 79 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents still approve of the job he’s doing, and 66 percent believe there is solid evidence of widespread fraud in last year’s election. If only Trump could bring repudiation onto himself, maybe only Trump can really complete his undoing.

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