WASHINGTON — President Trump came to power by offering to blow up staid Republican politics, and he will leave power on Wednesday with the wreckage in his wake.
Four years after molding itself around Trump’s whims and purging anyone seen as disloyal to him, Republicans have lost control of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Their standard-bearer, the only president to ever be impeached twice, is departing with the lowest approval rating of his tenure. Members of the party have been rebuked by corporate donors suddenly seeking distance from anyone perceived as enabling Trump or the armed mob that overtook the Capitol in his name.
And the most polarizing president in modern history is leaving his party with one final gift: An internal schism over whether its path back to power requires a continued embrace of Trump and Trumpism, or their repudiation.
“It’s pretty clear to me that there are two different wings with two completely different perspectives on our political life and Donald Trump,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Neither wing can win competitive elections alone.”
Trump’s ardent defenders are sticking by him even after his supporters, driven by lies about election fraud and white grievance, laid waste to the Capitol and killed a police officer. Another segment of his party still wants a reckoning, driven by the practical — if not moral — concern that Trump is becoming a political and financial risk.
“The mob was fed lies,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, laying the insurrection directly at Trump’s feet for the first time. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
For four years, the president’s tight hold on his party’s base meant that it was always better for Republicans like McConnell to stick with him than not, which meant defending his falsehoods, morally repugnant policies, or deeply inappropriate behavior and welcoming his adherents to the party. Joining with Trump and his base, Republicans passed tax cuts and confirmed three conservative Supreme Court justices and nearly 300 federal judges. Some in the party credit him with helping to pick up seats in the House in November and attracting new voters.
Now, the very existence of debate over the role Trump should play going forward speaks to the sudden diminution of his stature.
“The Republican brand is greatly damaged by what has happened,” said Bob Corker, the former Tennessee GOP senator who clashed with Trump, comparing him to a toddler, before retiring in 2018. “We should celebrate the policy gains, but never, ever consider having this type of person again at the head of the party.”
After the riot on Jan. 6 left five people dead, 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump. Top Senate Republicans — including McConnell — have left open the possibility of convicting him and potentially banning him from holding office again.
But the seeds of a Trump-fueled rift in the party were actually planted the day before the riot, when the two Republican candidates in Georgia’s Senate runoffs lost their seats to Democrats after Trump essentially turned the elections into a referendum on his oft-repeated lie that systematic voter fraud cost him reelection. The losses cost Republicans control of the Senate.
“We have direct empirical evidence that when Trump is the central focus of the election, the Republican Party has limits that make it difficult to win,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican strategist who has advised McConnell. “The longer that he exists as the boss of the Republican Party, the more difficult election cycles we’re going to go through.”
Some Republicans have come to see Georgia as a foreboding preview of what could happen if their party continues its embrace of an aggrieved ex-president through the 2022 midterms and beyond.
Before the November elections, Trump’s sway over Republicans was so complete, top officials did not even bother to draft a new party platform. After Trump lost, he refused to concede and claimed he would have won were it not for voter fraud, a lie that kept his base seething and prevented Republicans from openly discussing his political shortcomings.
Trump focused his grievances on Georgia, which he lost by 11,779 votes to Joe Biden — becoming the first Republican not to win the state in a presidential election since 1992. He pressured the Republican secretary of state to “find” more votes for him and railed about voter fraud at two “victory” rallies in the state between Nov. 3 and the Jan. 5 runoff, with the incumbent Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue falling into lockstep behind him.
“What I kept saying was, these stands that Loeffler and Perdue presumably are being forced to take are going to divide the Republican coalition they need to win,” recalled Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia. “I have to wonder how many Democrats saw that and were mobilized by it.”
At the same time, about a dozen Republican senators, led by Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, vowed to try to overturn the election when Congress met to certify the results on Jan. 6. It was a legally dubious effort McConnell privately tried to stop, and one he felt compelled to speak publicly about at the beginning of the proceedings that day — before the riot, but after it was clear from the Georgia results the previous night that his majority would slip away.
“If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” McConnell said, speaking as the armed mob made its way from Trump’s speech near the White House to the Capitol.
Even after the riot, however, 139 House Republicans and eight GOP senators voted to throw out millions of legally cast votes. Their chief claim — that the election was stolen from Trump — appears all but certain to outlive his presidency. A Washington Post-ABC poll taken last week found 7 in 10 Republican voters do not believe Biden was legitimately elected.
“You have to know that there are tremendous numbers of folks who believe that there was fraud of some sort,” said Drew McKissick, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I personally would like to see the president have a special counsel appointed to actually investigate election fraud.”
If any state represents the crosscurrents within the Republican Party over Trump, it is South Carolina. It is home to Republican Senators Lindsey Graham, who denounced Trump in the hours after the riot but has since returned to defending him, and Tim Scott, a potential presidential candidate, who has been quieter.
It is also home to Representative Tom Rice, one of the few conservative Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, and Representative Nancy Mace, a first-term Republican who voted against impeaching Trump but has spoken out forcefully against him.
“[Trump’s] legacy has now been wiped out,” she told a South Carolina newspaper. “It is gone, and we have to start from scratch.”
McKissick said Trump will “absolutely remain a strong force” in the party, and suggested Mace and Rice had disappointed voters there by going against him.
“I think there are a lot of people around the district that think she may be stepping out a little bit too far,” McKissick said.
There are other states where the Trump-supporting party apparatus is at war with other Republicans. The Arizona GOP is set to censure moderate Republicans like Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake, and Governor Doug Ducey this weekend. Representative Liz Cheney, the number three House Republican, has been condemned by the GOP in her home state of Wyoming for voting to impeach Trump and may well face a challenge to her leadership role from Republicans who believe she betrayed the president.
But some Republicans are already facing financial consequences for backing Trump’s false claims about election fraud. Multiple corporations have frozen all political giving, or said specifically they will stop donating to Republicans who supported the bid to overturn the election.
“There are some members who by their actions will have forfeited the support of the US Chamber of Commerce — period, full stop,” said Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer of the influential business group, at a press conference last week. He did not specify exactly who.
The soul searching among at least some Republicans has vindicated those who came out against Trump early on.
“There is no Republican Party — there’s a Trump party, and there’s a Democratic Party,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who is the former governor of New Jersey. “Republicans are beginning to see that they have unleashed something that is not healthy for democracy and not healthy for them.”