“The Republican Party has seen George Wallace’s racist movement, Perot’s movement and a tea party movement, and they all faded when they lacked a leader or had a diminished leader,” said Ed Rollins, a Trump ally who co-managed Ross Perot’s 1992 independent presidential bid.
“Is Trump going to be distracted and just throw rocks at the window? Will he be busy dealing with litigation he might face out of office?” Rollins asked. “To keep something going, you need discipline.”
Trump has refused to concede to President-elect Joe Biden (D), and his intentions upon leaving office are unclear. Trump advisers said over the weekend that they expect him to possibly hold campaign-style rallies as he sows doubt about the election results and seeks affirmation from his voters.
Over the weekend, thousands of Trump supporters protested and chanted “stop the steal” in Atlanta, Philadelphia and other cities, attacking the integrity of the election result revealed Saturday. That rebellion was boosted on social media, where unfounded claims of fraud were widely circulated.
“The president is still loved by tens of millions of Americans, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. He can literally do whatever he wants, including running again,” said Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager.
Regardless of how Trump ultimately closes this chapter of his political life, the spotlight on him will dim as elected Republicans adjust to the governing reality under a Biden administration and jockey for position ahead of the 2024 election, Trump’s allies and critics said Sunday.
Yet after more than 70 million Americans voted last week to grant Trump a second term, GOP leaders say Trump could remain a looming force, particularly with the absence of a successor who shares his style and following. The election Tuesday also saw the ascent of a crowd of fervent Trump backers, such as Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who became the first open supporter of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory to win a seat in the House.
“He is without question the most powerful voice in our party. He will have an enormous impact on our party going forward,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a Trump critic, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I believe the great majority of people who voted for Donald Trump want to make sure that his principles and his policies are pursued. So, yes, he’s not disappearing by any means. He’s the 900-pound gorilla when it comes to the Republican Party.”
In a statement Sunday recognizing Biden as president-elect, former president George W. Bush, the retired head of one of the Republican Party’s lingering family dynasties, acknowledged that Trump “earned the votes of more than 70 million Americans — an extraordinary political achievement.”
“They have spoken, and their voices will continue to be heard through elected Republicans at every level of government,” Bush said.
Many Republican leaders do not blame Trump, at least publicly, for the party’s failings. In fact, some GOP leaders credit him and his movement for reviving the party and bolstering its standing in the House this time around. That cohesion — despite Trump’s shattering of GOP orthodoxy and turbulent, scandal-plagued term — shows how much his persona and politics remain central.
“There weren’t great losses of Republican candidates because of President Trump, nor did President Trump get a thrashing,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the leadership, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Elsewhere in the Senate, ambitious Republicans such as Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), both potential 2024 hopefuls, have signaled their solidarity with much of Trump’s populism even though they lack his celebrity and bravado. Many of the party’s rising stars see Trump as a model of sorts for building a national movement in the modern GOP.
But former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Trump critic, said Republicans on Capitol Hill “fear Trump and his base and know that he can take just about any one of them out.”
“They know there’s no future with Trumpism and they aspired to do more when they got to the Senate than defend the president’s tweets and his conduct and behavior. And they want to legislate, and they’re not doing that now,” Flake said. “There’s a lot of fear, but no love.”
The dynamics put Trumpism on the brink of a transformation — to be adopted and championed by other Republicans as Reaganism was in the decades after Ronald Reagan’s presidency ended, or to dwindle away as a historical footnote. It could also become a rebellion led by a former president, as when Teddy Roosevelt bolted the GOP and formed the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” Party.
Like Perot and conservative Pat Buchanan in 1992, Trump has made a credo founded on his personality and the grievances of White Americans. He has built alliances with immigration hard-liners and religious conservatives, and made the media a constant foil as much as his Democratic rivals. An instinct toward non-interventionism on foreign policy and an “America First” mantra when it comes to worldwide pacts and traditional alliances are also critical parts of Trump’s approach.
Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican strategist who co-founded the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC, said his group plans to continue after Trump’s presidency and will work to defeat politicians it sees as threatening democracy here and abroad.
“Trump has been defeated, but Trumpism has not,” Schmidt said. “What Trumpism is is a statist, authoritarian ideology that’s inimical to the American precepts of democracy. It’s antithetical to America’s ideas and ideals, and it has fascistic markers. It is a cult of personality . . . and 70 million-plus people in the country were susceptible to it, to the racial antagonisms, to the assault on institutions and the rule of law, and it’s going to take a long time to deal with it.”
Inside the White House on Sunday, some advisers were encouraging the president to go out this week and speak to his voters, whether it was via a rally or speech, and they showed him data over the weekend that cast his turnout as impressive in key states. Several of them said Trump is in no mood to concede and keeps boasting that he has “the strongest base ever.”
The Trump campaign’s outreach to supporters has been framed in deeply personal terms. “Remember, they’re not only trying to STEAL the Election from me — they’re also trying to steal it from YOU,” one email read Saturday.
Trump is increasingly frustrated, too, that few Republicans are urging him to mount a months-long political war to contest the election through the courts and potentially in Congress, according to two White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, along with outside allies such as former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and the Republican Party’s legal cavalry, are battling over the vote counts in battleground states such as Nevada and Pennsylvania.
Trump’s family members — his sons Eric and Donald Jr. and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — are some of the central figures encouraging Trump to not accept that the race is over, the two White House officials said.
“Donny Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump are sitting there, ready to maybe be next in line if their father goes,” Rollins said.
Republicans close to Trump — or hoping to compete for his coalition should he step away in the coming years — echoed Trump’s claims on Sunday without offering evidence, illuminating how Trump’s posture and anger continue to influence Republican leaders.
“This is a contested election,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on Fox News. “President Trump should not concede.”
“We should give President Trump his day in court. Let the process unfold,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Regardless of how the legal fights unfold, longtime Trump allies said the president is determined to remain the leader of his movement and party.
“He should say, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ All roads will go through him for 2022 and 2024,” said Kellyanne Conway, the president’s former White House counselor and manager of his 2016 campaign.
“He should stand up and say, ‘I’m going to be the most prominent leader and the most prodigious fundraiser.’ He’s the leader of the party. With more than 70 million votes, there is no repudiation of Trumpism.”
The GOP’s centrist wing, however, is framing Tuesday’s election as a solid night for the party but far from an endorsement of Trump’s political brand.
“Republicans all across the country were running ahead of the president. And I don’t think it was a mandate for moving to the far left. I think it was a mandate for moderation and for working together, because people are just frustrated with the divisive and angry politics,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), a potential 2024 presidential contender, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
GOP pollster Frank Luntz said Trumpism was built around a person rather than a philosophy, which makes it more difficult to sustain after Trump leaves office. Furthermore, he said, movements organized around positive emotions historically have had more longevity.
“Ronald Reagan was for freedom. Donald Trump was against the swamp,” Luntz said. “That’s why Reaganism lasted from 1976 through 2016, and that’s why I’m not convinced Trumpism will even survive until the next election. Things last longer if you’re for something than if you’re against something.”
Still, Luntz said, Trump’s false narrative that the election was stolen from him because of imaginary fraud could help bind his supporters to him.
“As far as they’re concerned, he’s a winner,” Luntz said. “For the Trump voters, many of them will think the election was stolen. Others will still be loyal to him.”
And inside Trump’s orbit, defiance remains the guiding principle. One senior Trump campaign official said over the weekend that online contributions had risen in recent days, with “some of our strongest days.”
“He’s going to control the biggest group of people of anyone in the party,” the official said. “The biggest fundraising list. The biggest data operation. To a higher degree, the size and dedication of his base is unlike anything that is not just going to wash away like it would with a traditional presidential candidate.”
Schmidt said Trump is a “loser” and “will be deflated,” but said that “his defeat will give rise to both conspiracy theories and a mythology that the election was stolen, that he was stabbed in the back by various unseen forces.”