Family feuds can be the most difficult to resolve. The present struggle over how the Republican Party will define itself in the wake of the Trump presidency seems to fit the mold.
As former President Donald Trump’s candidacy became an ever more likely possibility in 2016, the lines between those who embraced the MAGA movement and those who felt it was a departure from conservatism were stark. Yet, after Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory, the vast majority on both sides coalesced into an occasionally uneasy coalition working to advance largely overlapping agendas.
Now, after the former President and his most ardent supporters spent months advancing claims of a “stolen” election punctuated by the Capitol riots, the split was torn wide open.
After voting against the impeachment of the former President, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a scathing speech on the Senate floor and summed up his feelings in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that the rioters were driven by “the unhinged falsehoods [Trump] shouted into the world’s largest megaphone.”
Mr. Trump responded in a letter which put the daylight between the two in starker terms.
“The Democrats and Chuck Schumer play McConnell like a fiddle — they’ve never had it so good — and they want to keep it that way! We know our America First agenda is a winner, not McConnell’s Beltway First agenda or Biden’s America Last,” he wrote.
Mr. Trump’s letter also makes reference to one of the few serious policy disagreements that came between the two camps: the former President’s siding with Democrats to award $2,000 stimulus checks in the COVID relief package passed during the lame- duck session, part of a narrative in which he blames Sen. McConnell for the loss of the GOP Senate majority in Georgia’s special elections.
Last week, the row was vividly on display as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who recently visited Mar-a-Lago to shore up support for 2022 candidates, and Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach the former President, stood at the same press conference and offered opposing views as to whether Mr. Trump should speak at a Conservative Political Action Group (CPAC) event.
Rep. McCarthy responded in the affirmative, while Rep. Cheney said, “I’ve been clear about my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following Jan. 6, I don’t think he should be playing a role in the future of the party.”
A Chapter or a New Book?
The introduction of new factions to the GOP is not new, nor is it unusual for any political party that withstands the test of time.
Beginning with the 1968 presidential candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater and culminating in the Reagan presidency, the GOP saw an influx of conservative voters and candidates. In the 1980s, the Christian right’s influence made social conservatism an increasingly important part of the party’s identity.
Republican political consultant Saul Anuzis thought that, ultimately, the same would happen with the largely rural and working-class voters that Mr. Trump attracted.
“We’ve had several times when a new batch of passionate voters came in; most of them integrated and made the party stronger. I think that’s what will happen here. These are cultural conservatives not unlike some of the Reagan Democrats from the ’80s. Church-going labor guys, very anti-establishment, who like their guns — but they are not partisan and were not really members of any party until now,” he said.
While the religious right became absorbed into the GOP establishment, during the ’70s and ’80s, conservatives became dominant, redefined the party, and ultimately pushed out the northeastern liberal “Rockefeller” Republicans. Mr. Anuzis said that the party was indeed going through “growing pains,” but felt that the strident populists would integrate.
“I do not think they’ll take over, but if you want to use the model of the Republican Party as a stool standing on the three legs of strong defense policies, fiscal conservatism, and social conservatism, I think that America First could likely become a fourth leg,” he said.
Trumpism has its underpinnings in the development of the party and broader American politics as well. Populist voices such as Louisiana Governor and later Senator Huey Long during the Great Depression thundered against economic elites, and in the 1960s and ’70s Alabama Governor George Wallace won a large following, taking on northern liberalism and defending states’ rights, largely in the form of segregation. The America First influence on the GOP traces most directly back to Pat Buchanan, whose 1992 primary challenge to former President George H.W. Bush showed the strength of his message. It took on a new face with Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential run in 2008, culminating in the Tea Party movement.
Whit Aryes, president of North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm, said that, while not new, what set aside the challenge Trumpism poses to the party is the status that Mr. Trump achieved.
“The populist faction led by Donald Trump is yet another chapter in the history of populism that has been in the U.S. for well over a century,” he said. “This is a 21st-century version that is anti-elite, anti-intellectual, anti-media, and anti-immigrant. It’s an updated version; but what’s most different is that we never had a populist elected President. That’s changed the level of influence these ideas now have, and that will not go away even if Donald Trump fades away.”
The Trump Card
Perhaps the most important factor in determining the GOP’s path forward rests on what role the former President will take. Largely silenced by circumstances and a social media ban between the Capitol riots and the close of his impeachment trial, a few weeks of a muted Mr. Trump, amid national shock from the violence of January 6, freed many more Republicans to openly break from the MAGA mantras.
However, Mr. Trump’s post-impeachment diatribe against Senator McConnell quickly showed that he would continue to push back against those who challenged his hold on the party. His name on the roster at CPAC and continued dangling of a 2024 run sent a clear signal that Mr. Trump does not plan a quiet retirement.
While that will pose a challenge to Republicans who want to make the former President part of the past, Mr. Anuzis hoped that Mr. Trump would be a positive force for the GOP.
“He’ll continue to be a major player in terms of raising money and endorsing candidates,” he said. “I think Trump is still a great motivator. He’s able to excite a large constituency and is going to look for America First candidates to support.”
In the wake of January 6, as many Republicans began to distance themselves from Mr. Trump, reports circulated that the former President was considering forming his own political party. While he announced at CPAC that the plan has been shelved, Mr. Trump’s hold seems backed up by data. According to a recent Gallup survey, 68% of Republicans wanted the former President to remain the GOP’s leader and a Suffolk University-USA Today poll found that 46% would follow him if he formed his own party.
William F.B. O’Reilly, a GOP consultant and Newsday opinion columnist who opposed Mr. Trump’s candidacy dating back to 2016, said that he still felt it was possible that the former President’s influence would be limited.
“There’s still a chance that he fades away organically,” he said. “Mitch McConnell spoke his mind very clearly about what he thought of the President’s actions, and when Trump blasted him, no one blinked an eye. There was never any threat to McConnell’s leadership; it got swallowed up in a few hours of the news cycle.”
Trumpism Without Trump?
Mr. Trump’s future role will also test to what extent the movement he led can be separated from his personal style. In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley seemed to lay out a road map of “Trumpism” without Mr. Trump, calling most of his policies “outstanding” and his post-election actions “wrong.”
Ms. Haley is one of several leading contenders to take up their own tailored version of the Trumpist mantle, together with Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“As the party moves on, I think it’s natural that there will be new leadership,” said Mr. Anuzis. “I think Trump’s personality will continue to have a major impact. At the same time, I think we will see others step into his shoes who have a willingness to fight the establishment, but who might also be more focused on crafting public policy.”
Josh Hammer, a syndicated opinion columnist and research fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation, a new think tank dedicated to promoting “national conservatism,” was hopeful that the leaders in the GOP could find ways to use the Trump years as way to refocus, but also bridge the gap between wings of the party.
“Trump was an earthquake, which is good for exposing weak foundations. He may not have built new foundations, but he showed us a path forward,” Hammer said. “His attitude was helpful to an extent in that it rallied the commonsense American voter. He was willing to push back against identity politics and say that someone is not a bigot for opposing critical race theory. If we take those lessons and find people who are willing to be aggressive, but not as brash and a little more pragmatic, I think that’s a winning formula.”
Style or Substance?
As policymakers ponder where the GOP should be heading, there is a good deal of debate over what Trumpism means, or if it even existed.
“I don’t see the intellectual underpinnings for long-term survival,” said Mr. O’Reilly. “It was basically a hurricane of talk and a cult of personality. I can’t tell you what Trumpism is besides a fury against ‘the man.’”
If little daylight existing in policy between Trumpists and other Republicans bodes well for the future of a united GOP, there is reason for optimism. A recent survey by Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center showed that both groups want small government and lower taxes, more restricted immigration and secure borders, and robust defense for religious liberty and traditional social mores. As expected, data shows larger gaps in strategy. Trump supporters largely opposed finding ways to work with Democrats and the Biden administration, while 73% of mainstream Republicans favored seeking out compromises.
“The governing faction of the party believes that you can’t get everything, so get what you can realistically achieve. The populists are all or nothing. It seems most of them would rather give an inflammatory interview than get things done,” said Mr. Ayres.
Mr. Hammer said that he dislikes the term “Trumpism,” as it weds the principles of the nationalist movement that Mr. Trump represented too closely to a single figure. Still, he felt that both style and recalibrated policy priorities promoted by the MAGA brand could be refined in a way to strengthen the Republican Party.
“The anti-Trump wings of the party have to realize that they can’t just pretend the last four years didn’t happen,” he said “We saw that a lot of what GOP Inc. focused on, like entitlement reform and free market fundamentalism, is not a recipe for winning; but secure borders, calling out China, and issues that resonate with the working class are.”
While hoping that future leaders would be more loyal to facts and expert data than the former President often was, Mr. Hammer said that Mr. Trump’s style shows the extent to which many voters appreciate someone who portrays an image of fighting for their values and interests.
“It shows that we need people who are going to be culture warriors,” he said. “People who are going to push back against the left’s attack on iconic American values and symbols.”
Another problem Republicans have increasingly struggled with is the desire of many to root out misinformation and conspiracy theories endorsed by some in the MAGA camp. Many Republican voices rejected the former President’s allegations of election fraud. Far more spoke out against spurious ideas promoted by sources like QAnon.
The role of extreme right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers at the Capitol riots emphasized the point to many.
“Any time there is radicalism, we have to distance ourselves from that,” said Mr. Anuzis. “There is no one here who is welcoming extreme groups. The crazies and anarchists will always be around, but they’re not part of the party. The Democrats and the media have been very effective though in creating a fear factor and lumping the GOP together with these radicals into some ‘cabal of the right.’”
The effort has met challenges. Amid calls to discipline Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose social media spouting of bizarre theories put her in the national spotlight, the GOP House leaders gave her a lecture but declined to rescind her committee assignments. Her committee positions were consequently stripped by a Democrat-led vote.
The inaction stood in contrast to the Republican Steering Committee’s actions in 2019, when it voted to remove former Congressman Steven King from his committee seats amid a slew of controversial statements he had made.
“The Greene thing was frustrating,” said Mr. Hammer. “It’s a mistake to defend every crazy thing that people say under the banner of free speech because it undermines our legitimate arguments to express our positions. It’s a bad path to go down.”
A Tent Big Enough for an Elephant
A key issue in what the future of the GOP holds depends not only on whether its wings can bridge their differences, but whether they actually want to give each other room and create a big Republican tent.
“I certainly think there’s a willingness on the governance side of the party to create a big tent, but the Trump side seems more focused on driving out ‘heretics,’” said Mr. Ayres.
Some of the early evidence seemed to support Mr. Ayres’ assertion. Following impeachment votes, several local party organizations issued measures censuring GOP members who voted that the trial should take place or that the former President should be removed from office.
After Rep. Cheney voted to impeach, Trump-loyalist Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz flew to her home state of Wyoming to encourage a primary challenge to her nomination in 2022. Several other members face similar challenges in their upcoming runs. Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina who all voted to impeach also have announced that they do not intend to seek additional terms.
Perhaps telling of the problem itself, requests for comment from Hamodia to several GOP House members on both sides of the Trump divide went unanswered. The sole exception was freshman Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (who represents Staten Island and a sliver of southern Brooklyn), who responded with a broad statement.
“I was proud to be endorsed by President Trump when I ran for New York’s 11th Congressional District last year. Through his America First agenda, President Trump expanded the base of our party and earned the trust of millions of new voters who share our vision of a strong, prosperous nation for our children. Under the leadership of Kevin McCarthy, House Republicans are working every day to help America recover from the COVID pandemic, protect taxpayers and stop Nancy Pelosi’s radical agenda. By building upon the successes of the Trump administration and holding Pelosi, AOC and the House Democrats accountable for their far-left policies, we will recapture control of the House of Representatives and get our country back on track.”
Mr. O’Reilly said that while the mainstream of the party will have to support its members morally and financially if they are to withstand primary challenges, he felt censure measures by party committees were largely “a window measure to protect themselves.” He acknowledged the divisions that exist and challenges they post, but was optimistic about the party’s future.
“The differences are real, but they may not be insurmountable,” he said. “There are no sharp ideological fights, just tone and spirit. Most of the leaders are committed to true conservative principles, which includes behavior.
“Conservatives have always been the cooler heads in the room and let’s hope that, now too, the cooler heads in the party prevail.”