As Republicans begin charting a turbulent future without a clear head of the party, former President Donald Trump has declared he can propel them to victory in next year’s congressional midterm elections.
“President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time,” read a statement sent out by Trump’s Save America political action committee following a meeting Thursday with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
“President Trump has agreed to work with Leader McCarthy on helping the Republican Party to become a majority in the House,” the statement continued.
In a separate statement, McCarthy declared the Republican Party “United and ready to win”.
This will put to rest, at least in the short term, the idea of a pro-Trump third-party splinter from the Republicans (GOP). But it will, no doubt, raise tensions within the party about whether the GOP should move on from Trump and his litany of controversies or double down on continuing to court the extremely loyal – and partially extreme – base of Trump supporters.
Discord within the losing party is common
During the past two decades, both parties have found themselves flailing after significant national electoral losses.
Leaderless Democrats fought about the direction of their party after losing two presidential races to George W Bush, only to unexpectedly find unity and “hope” upon Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
The Republicans’ loss that year and in 2012 thrust the GOP into a period of internal combat and political divisions that miraculously faded, for the most part, after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.
And while the political environment created by Trump, culminating in the storming of the US Capitol and the subsequent impeachment of Trump in his final days as president, is unlike anything the US has experienced in modern political history, the Republicans find themselves surveying a splintered GOP landscape and has political observers wondering how they will possibly press forward.
Republicans’ immovable base
Trump’s surprise meeting with McCarthy, who he has referred to as “my Kevin”, is the latest sharp turn from the minority leader who is publicly wrestling with how to operate in a post-Trump environment.
One week after the January 6 riot, during the House debate on Trump’s impeachment, McCarthy blamed Trump outright for the violence, but argued for censuring him, not impeaching him.
“The president bears responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
McCarthy, as minority leader and the top man responsible for getting Republicans elected to the House, saw the institutional backlash to the riot – businesses declared they would withhold campaign donations to Republicans who supported Trump’s rhetoric, Republican fundraisers voiced fears that Trump’s actions will make the party less competitive in future elections – and was seemingly acknowledging their concerns.
But the donor class and the grassroots are in vastly different places and McCarthy’s effort to calm the former’s nerves was a spectacular failure. McCarthy’s statement immediately drew criticism from the large vocal group of pro-Trump House Republicans he leads, as well as pro-Trump voters in his district and across the country, leading to Wednesday’s meeting, an effort to soothe the hard feelings he has triggered among some Republicans.
Any movement away from Trump in the initial aftermath of January 6 is beginning to dissipate, most likely because polling is showing that Republicans are still deeply supportive of the former president.
An Economist/YouGov poll released this week showed 57 per cent of Americans believe Trump had a lot or some responsibility for the riot. But 58 percent of Republicans said that he was not responsible at all.
Regarding convicting Trump for “incitement of insurrection” more Americans, 47-39 percent, support conviction while 79 percent of Republicans oppose it.
McCarthy and other Republican leaders are seeing these numbers and realising that very little has changed among their party’s supporters: it is still Trump’s party. And McCarthy’s visit to Trump affirmed that sentiment, at least for now.
This is certainly becoming clear to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who just two weeks ago was reportedly open to convicting Trump. Yet Wednesday, McConnell voted with all but five of his fellow Republicans in the effort to dismiss the House’s impeachment case.
This polling is emboldening fringes of the party that Republican leaders were trying to tamp down in recent weeks.
McCarthy is tepidly handling the controversy surrounding Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s past incendiary actions towards Democrats and others promoting progressive causes.
There is little pushback from leadership regarding Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who is taking the unusual step of holding a rally in the Wyoming district of his colleague Representative Liz Cheney, to slam her for voting for Trump’s impeachment. Cheney, who serves as a deputy to McCarthy, is standing by her vote but has become a punching bag for pro-Trump Republicans.
It turns out the Capitol riot, which was seen as a “turn-the-page” moment for some Republican elected officials and donors, has in only a few short weeks become just another Trump controversy that failed to create a sense of outrage among his most ardent supporters.
And when his political action committee declares, “President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today,” they are sending a clear signal to those Republicans who thought they could move on from Trump that, at the moment, it is way too soon to do so.