Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chairman who has been a critic of Trump, and the GOP for supporting him, shared his thoughts on the future of the party in the most recent episode of “The Next Four Years,” an Amazon original podcast examining the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and what it means for the immediate future. I followed up with him about where the Republican Party goes from here after many party leaders — including the president — led hundreds to violently attack the government of the United States.
Eugene Scott: What’s the future of the GOP after last week’s riots?
Steele: There’s an enormous question mark from my perspective. People are so fixated on justifying the words and the deeds that they have committed themselves to long before Donald Trump. I mean, even when going back to my chairmanship, when you try to change the system for the better, you realize that there is a greater resistance inside the structure itself, and people find ways to justify not making that change. What is so stunning for me is how quickly and easily folks just flipped the script from the things they knew and the things they reportedly believed to embrace Trumpism. So it was a battle for folks like me to try to move the party into the 21st century on issues around race and expanding the party and things like that. But then Trump comes along and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll do white nationalism.’ And then you realized that, well, maybe this is where they’ve always been. And this was not as great of a leap as many may believe. So that complicates the question about the future of the party, because we’ve been trying to answer that question since Ronald Reagan left office in 1989.
Scott: The GOP has lost the White House, the House and the Senate. What message do the Republicans need to take from this?
Steele: You will not be a governing majority again as long as you’re embracing Trumpism and nationalism. They are synonymous, and nobody in this country is going to be fooled by that going forward. On our (MSNBC) programs, I said depending on the action taken by Republicans in the Senate, that the Republican Party would wind up sealing itself in the tomb Donald Trump built for it. And on Jan. 6, the Republican Party not only sealed itself inside its own tomb but made it very difficult to get out at some point in the future. Because they are now recognized as a party that has emboldened the overthrow of our constitutional government. And you don’t get to just walk that back.
On the podcast, Steele talked about the relationship between Trump and his supporters over the past four years that got them to this point. The president was able to connect with his supporters’ emotions — some of them understandable, but Trump did not channel their anger into anything meaningfully productive.
You’ve got people who are just angry and frustrated because for years they’ve been taken for granted. And Trump tapped into that, that passion, that anger, that frustration, and he used it. He, he plucked at it. It’s like an old scab. You just kind of go back at it and you, and you know, you shouldn’t prick at it, but you do and you just, and it starts to bleed. And then you’re like, you try to let it heal and you pick, so he did that repetitive over and over again. Action. And people responded to that, because he became, in many respects, an avatar for them, and he became a way of expressing their frustration and their anger. So it is true. Trump is not the problem. He’s the symptom.
The GOP has become so closely aligned with Trump and his worldview that it will be difficult communicating to voters ahead of the 2022 midterms what the party is actually about, Steele said.
The Republican Party didn’t run on anything except supporting the personality of Donald Trump, Steele said. That wasn’t a winning formula in 2020 and it won’t be moving forward — especially with the Black and Latino voters that proved to be so decisive in states like Arizona and Georgia, he said.
They’re not gonna take the White House at 2024. Who’s voting for them? Where do you, how do you get 8 million more votes four years from now? If Donald Trump is still sitting there on the sidelines, bringing in everything that you do. I mean Republicans right now can’t even say the damn election is over and that they lost and Joe Biden is the next president without fear of the ire of Donald Trump. So how do they then go into our community and the Black community? Into Hispanic communities or any community and go, “Just ignore the last four years. That we’re just, we were just kidding. You know, don’t tell Trump, I said that." I mean, you know this idea that it all just suddenly, like, cleanses itself and goes away and we start fresh in two years in the ’22 cycle in four years in 24, it’s not happening. Donald Trump won’t let it happen. Leadership requires trust and it starts by you trusting the American people. Right. And the way you demonstrate that trust is how you lead them.
What the GOP does from this point as their party leader is facing impeachment days before his successor is sworn in is still unclear. More Republican lawmakers have spoken out against the actions of Trump’s supporters than many people on both sides of the aisle expected given the past four years.
But to Steele’s point, how they respond to Trump himself will be definitive as the president remains popular with his base. Trump still had a job approval rating of more than 70 percent with Republicans after last week’s insurrection, according to the Quinnipiac University poll.