In the immediate aftermath of his reelection loss and ever since, Trump’s already narrow view of how he wanted to exercise his power has become a sliver: His entire emphasis is on somehow undoing his ouster by the public, and convincing himself and others that he isn’t the loser that the official results would suggest. There is no Trumpism at this point that extends much further than re-litigating 2020, primarily centered on the election but, at times, looping in his response to the coronavirus pandemic — a response that is indelibly attached to the election results.
In the months since the election, though, an odd dynamic has emerged. Republican politicians have continued to embrace Trump as a leader, despite his twice having lost the popular vote and despite Congress shifting to the Democrats during his brief administration. Republicans have similarly embraced what is now perhaps the sole element of Trump’s political goals that’s actionable, introducing hundreds of new laws constraining voting access and availability. Trump is still the party’s engine — even as his actual voice has been enormously diminished.
It’s not entirely absent, of course. A New York Times review of the online spread of Trump’s pronouncements since his banishment from social media after the attempted insurrection in January shows that his allies, like Breitbart News, are still capable of amplifying his anti-d/Democratic messages. But as the collapse of his blog last week shows, his power to dominate the conversation has faded. The blog was a stopgap messaging system (despite his and his team’s initial celebrations of its power) but it is still noteworthy that it didn’t carry his message the way Twitter and Facebook once did.
Over the course of his presidency, there was a consistency to the amount of attention he received. Analysis from GDELT of a subset of online news articles shows that Trump was mentioned in about 4 percent of them each week over the course of his presidency, and that dropped slightly after the 2018 midterms — presumably in part because Democrats had new power to drive the political conversation.
In his final weeks, the attention he generated was spiky: soaring at the election and at the Jan. 6 insurrection in particular. The resolution of his second impeachment in the Senate didn’t draw significantly more attention, nor did the party’s struggle over the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the House Republican leadership team last month. Trump just faded.
On television, that was less true. Both the Senate trial (which was covered heavily on the cable networks) and the Cheney fight drew more attention to Trump than he’d been getting. But it was still less than he’d been used to.
Since the inauguration of President Biden, Trump’s given a few interviews and a few speeches, including one last week in North Carolina. Those appearances occasionally resulted in blips of mentions of Trump on the day of the speech itself or the day after, but those increases were generally subtle and often inextricable from broader news stories.
But again: The GOP is nonetheless treating Trump as an essential component of its strategy moving forward. Leaders have made the pilgrimage to Trump properties for obligatory thumbs-up photos. Part of the debate over ousting Cheney was centered specifically on the insistence that Trump had an important role to play in the party. And Republican activists and state officials continue to push forward with arguments about the need to curtail the voter fraud that Trump demands people treat as significant.
Without access to some sort of parallel universe machine, it’s impossible to know how things would have unfolded under different scenarios. But it does seem as though, had Trump said nothing at all since Jan. 6, not much would have changed among his supporters in politics and the media.
The reason is fairly obvious. Trump spent months before and after the election claiming that rampant fraud had occurred. That established, bolstered and/or reinforced a sincere belief among many Republicans that the electoral process was tainted, a belief that was only heightened when, in fact, Trump lost. Trump built a base that was poised to believe that only theft could result in his ouster, so, after Jan. 6, he didn’t need to say another word about it.
Republican officials, in other words, are to some extent now beholden to a false belief simply because most of their base of voters already believe it’s true. Trump has little to do with it at this point, though he’s still useful as a way for elected officials to generate attention and praise. Trumpism led to the need to address “fraud” and, since curtailing voting was already thought to be useful to Republican candidates, the issue moved to the center of the policy debate. Once the false claims of fraud are “addressed,” it’s not clear what other policies Trump-loyal legislators would feel the need to advance.
Trump is reportedly working with former House speaker Newt Gingrich to — rather belatedly — build out a set of principles that define his movement. How much traction such a document gets remains to be seen, but it’s very hard to see how what results won’t be the functional equivalent of Gingrich wearing a MAGA hat. It’s almost necessarily the case that Trumpism isn’t centered on key policy outcomes simply because Trump’s approach to policy was usually driven by political utility and short-term furies.
Update: This effort appears to have been nixed anyway.
I’ve been nebulously referring to “Trumpism” without defining it, in part because defining Trumpism means misunderstanding Trumpism in the first place. It is, in short, doing whatever is useful to wield power over one’s enemies.
That there aren’t clear policy outcomes to enact doesn’t mean there aren’t some obvious legislative paths forward for an ambitious Republican. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has shown a remarkable ability to channel Trumpian politics, signing into law or advocating a number of pieces of legislation that elevate cultural fights popular in the conservative media: cracking down on protesters, targeting how issues of race are taught in schools, attacking social media companies.
It’s very useful at this point to remember that Trump’s own success in Republican politics was heavily derived from his enthusiasm for embracing culture-war fights. One reason he stood out in the crowded field of Republican candidates in 2016 was that he parroted the right-wing rhetoric he saw on Fox and Breitbart, rhetoric that other Republicans saw as politically problematic over the long term, even if it might be useful in the moment. From the day he announced his candidacy, a key part of Trumpism was treating political rhetoric like Sean Hannity hits.
DeSantis isn’t following Trump’s actual lead in his policy moves; he’s instead following Trump’s strategic lead. He enjoys the support of Trumpworld in part because of his loyalty to Trump. But he may also be the first significant test of the centrality of Trump to Trumpism. If the former president actually wants to seek the nomination in 2024, he’s likely to be directly competing with DeSantis. And that means that Trump may start targeting DeSantis as an opponent sooner rather than later.
If Donald Trump were to suddenly be teleported to an Earthlike planet 400 light-years away, what would happen to his movement? The answer seems obvious: In that case, as now, plenty of people would claim to be acting with his mandate, using “Trump” as a byword for Trump-like actions with a wide range of potential outcomes. Trump is still a focus of attention within fairly all conversational spheres, like on One America News. But that he’s continued to earn broad fealty even without a loud voice is probably less a demonstration of his clout than of the perceived utility of his clout.
This may be a transitionary period in which Republicans nod at Trump while siphoning off his power. It may be a lull for Trump himself before he comes roaring back. It is not impossible to imagine, though, that the movement and misty ideology that bears his name might survive even once it’s almost entirely separated from Trump himself.
It’s probably the case, in fact, that Trump did what he did so often as a real estate developer: Let someone else build something — a rhetorical style and base of support rooted in the far-right media — and then slap his name on it. If that’s a fair assessment, then, like so many of his buildings in recent years, we may soon see his name removed or replaced without much damage to the building itself.