Trump Will Still Lead the GOP
Jonathan Bernstein has a thoughtful piece up today arguing that Donald Trump's influence over the Republican Party will wane pretty quickly once he's out of office. I think this is incorrect. Of course I have no proof, but I'd like to explain my thinking on this.
Bernstein correctly notes that, despite many Republicans and the overwhelming majority of GOP members of Congress going along with his election fraud charade, he's actually been very weak influencing them on legislation. His veto threat on the defense authorization bill is proving toothless, and Republicans have felt free to oppose him on other bills and occasionally on some executive branch nominations.
This is entirely true. However, Trump has never had much influence over congressional Republicans on actual policy. They know that apart from a few narrow areas, Trump has very little interest in policy and that what views he does have are highly malleable. Remember last year when he briefly embraced the idea of gun control legislation in response to a wave of mass shootings and then completely walked that idea back? His main legislative achievements have been on tax cuts (a longstanding Republican priority since long before Trump had any interest in politics) and court nominations (where Trump has largely deferred to the judgment of key Republican interest groups).
Republicans still see Trump as the key to unlocking the voters they most want.
Trump has, however, proven highly influential over his party politically, rewarding those who flatter and protect him and substantially shortening the careers of those who don't. Will this influence lessen a month from now? He won't be as much of a news story once he's no longer President. There's a decent chance his Twitter account will be suspended or highly curtailed. And of course he won't have the office of the presidency with which to reward supporters. So maybe his influence will wane.
Maybe. But it's important to consider just what his power is over Republicans. This is largely conjecture on my part, but my impression is that he will still be quite powerful because Republicans will still see him as the key to unlocking the voters they most want.
The story of the Republican Party since at least Richard Nixon's presidency has been a tireless campaign for the loyalty of "working class whites," an imprecisely-defined demographic with some conservative (and illiberal) leanings that has nonetheless jumped back and forth between the parties over the decades. Such voters in the southern states moved toward the Republican Party in the 1960s and 70s in response to Democrats' increasing embrace of civil rights and Republicans' use of dog-whistle racial appeals. In more recent years, we've seen working class whites in the Rust Belt move rightward as well, partially as a result of declining union strength and also due to more explicit racial appeals.
Trump didn't invent this trend but he has helped to accelerate it. And notably, the two times he was on the ballot, turnout among working class whites was generally higher than usual and they leaned more Republican, while his party out-performed poll-based expectations.
Republican leaders act as though Trump is the culmination of this half-century effort. Those white voters show up, they believe, when Trump tells them to, and they don't want to alienate them. Whether that's true or not, it gives Trump a lot of leverage within the party, whether or not he's on Twitter or leading the nightly news. He'll likely endorse various congressional candidates in the 2022 midterms, and either he'll be a candidate in 2024 or the other candidates will be going out of the way to win his backing, likely by flattering him. This is not because he'll get a lot of attention in 2021 but because they think he has the power to move those working class whites in the future.
This future is not yet written, of course, and there are a number of ways things could go. It's entirely possible Trump will spend the next few years in court or even in exile. Or he may just lose interest in politics altogether. But my guess is that he remains functionally in charge of the GOP. I hope I'm wrong about this, and it would be good for both the party and the country if I am. But as long as Republican officeholder believe he (and only he) has access to the voters they need, he has a lot of leverage over that party.