“We did not send him there to vote his conscience,” Dave Bell, chairman of the Republican Party in Washington County, Pa., said of Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). “We did not send him there to ‘do the right thing,’ or whatever he said he was doing. We sent him there to represent us.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who voted to impeach Trump, got a letter from relatives declaring that he had “embarrassed the Kinzinger family name.” Meanwhile, in Florida, Trump was greeted on a street lined with supporters as he returned from a round of golf on Sunday, a display bolstered by far-right media outlets.
Just to clarify for any historians stumbling across this article: Trump is the one who repeatedly misled his supporters about the results of the 2020 presidential election and encouraged them to come to Washington on Jan. 6, ensuring that the violence at the Capitol could occur. Kinzinger, Romney and Toomey were those who suggested that that was something to be criticized.
But in the Republican Party of 2021, that’s unacceptable. Republicans aren’t elected to “do the right thing” or whatever; the expectation among much of the base is that they are there to elevate cultural fights against Democrats. This was the engine for Trump’s rise in the 2016 presidential nominating contest, his willingness to overtly prioritize the rhetoric and battles of conservative media over conservative policy proposals.
And, over the past five years, it has become the mantra for the party itself. The GOP’s 2020 policy platform was literally that it promised to “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” whatever form that might take. Culture had taken primacy.
For Republican officials trying to advance an actual policy platform (a group that, although winnowed, does exist), the Faustian bargain that was in place from January 2017 until last month has lost its utility. Trump broadly signed off on the things his party wanted to enact, from tax cuts to judicial nominations. But now there’s no Trump to serve as the icebreaker pressing forward, just a base whose most vocal members are more concerned about slights to Trump as a proxy for their war against Democrats than, say, means-testing financial programs. Elected officials were sent to Washington to represent the base, and the base is engaged in a very different struggle than is someone such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell understands the problem here. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he made clear that he would do his best to guide the party’s nominating process for Senate races to ensure electability — but his obvious focus is on figuring out how to leverage the energy of Trump’s base of support on behalf candidates who are a bit less Trumpy. This is the challenge for the party broadly, maintaining the enthusiasm for voting and engagement seen over the past five years but focusing voters toward what the establishment would view as a more productive end.
While Trump was president, this was impossible. Any attempt to represent one’s own priorities as Trump’s — even when accurate — risked being submarined by a single tweet or comment from the president at a press gaggle. The only constant in a Trump-dominated political world was Trump, and his volatility and habit of having his head turned by random people made it nearly impossible to point to his support of a policy as authoritative.
McConnell and other Republican leaders have an advantage they lacked during Trump’s presidency: Trump’s diminished public voice. Trump lost both the constant attention of the news media and his active presence on social media, leading to a remarkably Trump-lite past few weeks. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump, as will Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Either can come back and claim to speak on Trump’s behalf to some extent, at a greatly reduced risk of immediately being undercut by Trump himself. In other words, efforts to redirect the energy of Trump’s base in a different direction might be aided by his reduced ability to pull it back.
It’s not that easy, of course. One Fox News interview can change a lot. If Trump gets a sense that his political power is being redirected or co-opted, the odds of that happening increase. Or if someone clearly understood to speak on the former president’s behalf, such as his son Donald Trump Jr., comes to the same conclusion, the scaffolding being built by the party shakes. The smoother path forward might be to adopt Trump’s culture-war tactics instead of his mandate, leveraging the expectations of Republican voters if not the authority of the former president. We’ve seen candidates try this for years by now. Without Trump’s loud voice drowning them out, some may have more success.
As it stands, though, Trump remains the embodiment of that fight. He is still the face of “owning the libs,” as the vernacular has it. A defense of Trump is a defense of the right broadly — and a critique of Trump is a critique of those “75 million voters” (actually a bit over 74 million) who supported him last year.
As McConnell put it on Saturday, “Anyone who decries his awful behavior is accused of insulting millions of voters,” a fair summary of the moment. McConnell hopes that he can persuade those millions of voters — the 75 percent of Republicans who think Trump should have a prominent role in the party — to instead progress in a different direction not contingent on Trump and Trump’s fights.
But, then, McConnell and other Republican leaders hoped to do the same thing in 2016, too.