America at a Crossroads: Split Strategies in the Republican Party As They Wrestle with the Future of Trumpism

America at a Crossroads: Split Strategies in the Republican Party As They Wrestle with the Future of Trumpism

The Trump presidency was a stress test on US democratic institutions, exemplified by the insurrection in Washington over the presidential transition. While it may appear that America sits at a crossroads between two possible paths forward, it is likely that Trump’s influence on US politics will remain a part of the Republican party even as some policymakers try to distance themselves.

 Trumpism is a term used to encapsulate Donald Trump’s style of politics, ideology and the political movement he inspires. Although initially seen as America-first populism, Trump’s proliferation of conspiracy theories and attempts to undermine the presidential election have evolved to represent an opposition to democratic norms.

Following four years of escalating rhetoric, these sentiments culminated in Trump supporters violently storming in the US Capitol on 6 January, in an attempt to overturn the certification of the 2020 presidential elections. As a result, a schism in the Republican party has emerged as lawmakers grapple with whether to embrace or reject Trumpism as an organizing party strategy.

 Why Trumpism could continue as a dominant political strategy

Going in to November, the pre-election polls gave Biden a 10-point lead over Trump, leading Republicans to fear a “blood bath” at the ballot box. When the results were tallied, despite winning by over 7 million votes, Biden underperformed his polls by about 5-points. The gap in expectations made it hard to claim there had been a national rebuke of Trump, making it less likely Republicans would abandon Trump’s message and strategy. A tension now exists in the Republican party between those who are ready to move beyond Trumpism, and those who have hitched their wagon to a Trump-brand of politics.

 Since the insurrection, many Republicans distanced themselves from Trump, with Sen. Murkowski (R-Al.) calling for impeachment, Sen. Graham (R-Sc.) saying “enough is enough,” and other senators reversing their decision to challenge the election certification process. However, other Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Hawley (R-Mo.) and Sen. Cruz (R-Tx.), have continued to amplify Trump’s conspiracy theories around voter fraud. Even after the events on 6 January , 147 Republican lawmakers voted against certifying the results from Arizona, Pennsylvania, or both.

 Key to understanding why Trumpism could prevail is that the political incentives for candidates like Cruz and Hawley remain. While early polling showed a majority of Americans opposed the violence in Washington (YouGov had 71% of registered voters opposed;  Ipsos had 70%), the same polling revealed  just under half of Republicans surveyed (45%) supported the storming of the Capitol.  According to Morning Consult polls, Hawley and Cruz have only seen a small dip in their approval ratings. Hawley saw a 9-point drop in approval ratings amongst Missouri Republicans, and Cruz a 6-point fall amongst Texas Republicans. However, this was less than the average drop in favourability compared to their Republican colleagues on the Hill. Nationwide, Hawley saw an increase in name recognition and favourability amongst national Republicans, which has more than doubled since August 2020. Similarly, with eyes on the next presidential election, Cruz’s wider political ambitions seem to have been unaffected as  his national favorability ratings remain stable.

The political forces that could mitigate against Trumpism

With a growing number of Republicans openly disavowing Trump, it increases the likelihood that policymakers across the aisle will aim to distance themselves from Trumpism and work to restore order to the democratic processes. Some critics of Trumpism have argued that Trump has not actually been electorally successful, being the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the White House, the Senate and the House in a single term. Moreover, Republicans have only won the popular vote once since the 1980s, a damning sign for their political fortunes. Taken together, it is plausible that the Republican leadership seek strategies to pivot away from the pro-Trump base, and join with Democrats to pursue policy that would reinforce many of the democratic norms dismissed by Trump 

 There is historical precedent for this eventuality. Following Watergate, Republicans suffered large electoral losses that caused the party members to distance themselves from Nixon. Republicans embraced broad bipartisan reform to mitigate against corruption in Washington and restore trust in the institutions and the Republican party brand. To name a few, Congress limited individual campaign donations, required politicians to disclose financial information, and eased the process for citizens to obtain government records. 

As such, if Republicans support the incoming administration’s policy to strengthen government institutions, it could be a key variable in determining whether Trumpism is internally rejected. The following pieces of legislation may be of key importance in this respect:

  • Increased federal oversight: strengthening the Office of Government Ethics could make it easier to investigate misconduct in the federal government.
  • Electoral reform: legislation, such as H.R.1 For the People Act, will be important measures in strengthening how elections proceed in the future.
  • Social Media Regulation: calls to repeal Section 230, which shields social media companies from being liable for what people post on their websites, could enable stronger moderation of what users post online.
  • Civil Service Reform: Trump’s cuts to agency budgets and an exodus of career civil servants means the Biden administration will need to rebuild the civil service workforce and attract new talent to government.

However, the political environment has shifted far since the post-Nixon era, and the heightened polarization in Congress makes it highly unlikely broad reforms will pass and gain bipartisan support. First, the incredibly small Democratic majorities in Congress make politics a zero-sum game, as when politicians are seen working across the aisle will be framed as a loss for the other side that could lose them seats in the upcoming midterms. 

Second, the media landscape that helped shift opinion against Nixon has been completely altered. Fox News was created with the deliberate aim to provide an “alternate reality” to mainstream media, and with the rise of similarly motivated channels like OAN and Newsmax, the bifurcated presentation of information means it is unlikely that society will be able to reach broad agreement on not only what should be done, but whether something needs to be done in the first place. 

Third, the increasing complexity and size of American government has made it continually harder for leaders to enact sweeping reform. Earlier presidents, such as Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, had a far easier time reconstructing American politics for the simple fact that the institutions of government were far smaller and less codified in policies and process. 

A continued chasm in the Republican party 

The facts remain that while some Republicans are abandoning Trump in public forums, the Trump base is still strong and a number of candidates have built their candidacy on Trumpism. These two scenarios, however, are not mutually exclusive; it is plausible that Trumpism remains a sect of the Republican party while other leaders seek to distance themselves. As such, it is highly likely that unrest and division will continue to be a theme in American politics in the years to come.


Categories: North America, Politics

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