Donald Trump boarded Air Force One for the last time on Wednesday with a wave. As Frank Sinatra’s My Way blared over the loudspeakers at Joint Base Andrews, the soon-to-be-ex-president took off for his new home in Florida.
Although he had just finished promising a small gathering of supporters that he would be back “in some form”, the future for Trump – and the political movement he rode to victory in 2016 – is murky.
Just two months ago, he seemed poised to be a powerful force in American politics even after his November defeat. He was still beloved by Republicans, feared and respected by the party’s politicians and viewed positively by nearly half of Americans, according to public opinion surveys.
Then Trump spent two months trafficking in unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud, feuded with party officials in battleground states, unsuccessfully campaigned for two Republican incumbent senators in Georgia’s run-off elections and instigated a crowd of supporters that would turn into a mob that attacked the US Capitol.
He’s been impeached (again) by a bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives and could, if convicted in the Senate, be permanently banned from running for public office.
Over his five-year career in politics, Trump has wriggled free from political predicaments that would sink most others. He has been declared dead more times than Freddy Krueger. Yet he always seemed unsinkable; a submarine in a world of rowing boats.
Stripped of his presidential powers and silenced by social media, he faces daunting challenges, both legal and financial. Can he still plot a successful political comeback? Will a Mar-a-Lago exile be his Elba or St Helena? And who might the tens of millions of Americans who supported him turn to instead?
A solid Maga base
In the days following the US Capitol riot, Trump’s overall public approval rating precipitously dropped to the mid-30s – some of the lowest of his entire presidency. At first blush, the numbers would indicate that his future political prospects have been mortally wounded.
A deeper dive, however, paints a less dire picture for the ex-president. While Democrats, independents and some moderate Republicans are against him, his Republican base appears to be intact.
“I don’t think what we’re seeing suggests he loses political relevance and resonance,” says Clifford Young, president of US public affairs at the public opinion company Ipsos. “Anyone who says that is kidding themselves. He still has a significant base.”
Many Trump supporters fully believe Trump’s assertion that the election was stolen by Democrats, and Republicans, across multiple states. They’ve seen reports in fringe conservative media that the attack on the Capitol was instigated by antifa leftists and dismiss the preponderance of evidence that has led to the arrest of numerous right-wing militants and pro-Trump activists.
Gary Keiffer is a 67-year-old former Democrat from Beckley, West Virginia, who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. He says the ex-president was right to raise questions about the election, he suspects left-wing activists were behind the Capitol attack, he still fully supports the ex-president, and he hopes he’ll run again in four years.
“He did so much for our country,” Keiffer says. “I’ve never seen a president do as much as he has done and lose an election – and he didn’t lose an election.”
Trump may have a lot of problems, but the loyalty of his base – the folks who go to the rallies and buy Maga flags and signs – isn’t one.
The party divides
Donald Trump ran for president as an outsider challenging the Republican establishment. His own party’s leaders and rivals for the presidential nomination were as much a part of what he derisively referred to as “the swamp” as the Democrats.
With his victory, he became the Republican establishment – and all but the most recalcitrant never-Trumpers eventually bent to his will.
They bent, according to Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist and former Senate campaign strategist, because that’s where the party membership took them. Trump appointed top party officials, like Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel. And at the state and local level, Republican Party officials are Trump true believers.
“The state party leaders are the activists, not the elite,” says Donovan. “The rank and file are hardcore Republicans, and hardcore Republicans are hardcore Trump people. He has absolutely converted them.”
When controversies came – the violence following a white nationalist march in Virginia, recordings of immigrant children crying because of the administration’s family separation policy, the use of teargas and brute force on Black Lives Matter protesters near the White House, the impeachment over pressuring Ukraine’s president for political help and any number of intemperate tweets – the standard response from Republican politicians was to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.
In the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, however, cracks have begun to show.
Before a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the president’s efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 presidential election results threatened to put American democracy into a “death spiral”. After the violence, his aides indicated that he was “pleased” with efforts in the House of Representatives to impeach the president for inciting the insurrection – a vote that 10 Republicans, including a member of the Republican leadership, broke party ranks to support.
Earlier this week McConnell made his most direct comments on the riot, saying that the mob was “fed lies” and “provoked” by Trump and other powerful people.
McConnell’s moves are the clearest sign that at least some Republicans are looking to put daylight between the party and Trump.
Others, however – such as the 138 House Republicans who voted to challenge the results of Pennsylvania’s presidential vote after the Capitol Hill riot or the 197 who voted against Trump’s impeachment – are sticking with the ex-president.
“President Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party and the America First movement,” Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, a loyal Trump supporter, tweeted on Thursday.
If anything, Donovan says, Republicans in the House better reflect the party’s centre of gravity given that, unlike the Senate, they have to stand for election every two years. If McConnell and the Republican top leadership want to make a clean break with Trump, it could tear the party apart.
A corporate revolt
For decades, the Republican Party has operated as a fusion between social conservatives and business interests. The latter appreciated the party’s advocacy of lower taxes and reduced regulation, and tolerated the former’s support for abortion bans, religious freedom initiatives, gun rights and other hot-button cultural issues.
Trump’s presidency, and his efforts to expand the Republican coalition to include working-class whites through anti-immigration and anti-trade policies, have put pressure on this alliance. In 2018, suburbanites – the kind of people who work at and run those pro-Republican businesses – trended toward the Democrats.
Then, after the Capitol Hill riot, the dam broke. A slew of big companies – including Walmart, JPMorganChase, AT&T, Comcast and Amazon – announced they were either suspending their political donations or withdrawing support specifically from Republican politicians who supported Trump’s challenge to the presidential election results.
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Big business could, once the political waters calm, return to its normal giving patterns, says Donovan, or it could decide that their interests no longer clearly align with a Republican Party beholden to Trump.
“This has been a long time coming,” Donovan says. “We’re past the point where business is going to cast their lot exclusively with Republicans.”
Corporate contributions make up only part of the Republican Party’s funding, but the speed and severity of the move caught many conservatives off-guard. And the latest moves might instigate further efforts by the party leaders – the ones who pay attention to the dollars and where they come from – to reject Trump’s policies and his style of politics.
The evangelical bargain
If the corporate wing of the Republican Party is contemplating a break with Trumpism, social conservatives may not be far behind. The strong evangelical backing for a man with two divorces, multiple affair allegations and intemperate personality always seemed counterintuitive, but religious conservatives stuck by the president in 2020 even when the moderate suburbanites peeled off.
Part of it can be explained by Trump’s ability to fill more than 200 federal court vacancies, including three Supreme Court seats, over the course of his four years. His selection of one of their own, Mike Pence, as vice-president also helped. Policy wise, the Trump administration advanced a social agenda that was also popular with Christian conservatives. It fought against religious limitations in courts and adjusted regulations, such as contraceptive care mandates in federal healthcare law, in their favour.
With Trump out of power, however, some evangelicals may be rethinking their support of Trump and his political agenda.
“We worship the magi, not Maga,” headlined a piece in Christianity Today by Anglican minister Tish Harrison Warren.
“The violence wrought by Trump supporters storming the Capitol is anti-epiphany,” she writes. “It is dark and based in untruth. The symbols of faith – Jesus’ name, cross, and message – have been co-opted to serve the cultish end of Trumpism.”
She goes on to blame religious leaders in the US for allowing their desire for political power to cloud their moral compass – and said a reckoning within the religious community is near.
Deeana Lusk, a legal assistant from Derby, Kansas, says faith is important in her voting and Trump wasn’t her first pick in the 2016 Republican primaries. Still, she voted for him in the general election that year and in 2020.
She says she won’t give a lot of weight to Trump’s endorsements and advocacy going forward, however, and if Trump decides to run again she’ll definitely shop around for other possibilities.
“The truth of the matter is no one’s perfect,” she says. “However, there are thousands of candidates out there who would support religious freedom, and I think ultimately we are going to be looking for that candidate.”
Life without Trump
There is, of course, the possibility that Trump – despite his protestations and promises – fades from the political scene. Talk of new political parties, new media empires and new presidential campaigns could subside.
Or, perhaps at least 17 Republicans in the Senate could join the 50 Democrats in convicting the ex-president of his insurrection impeachment charges and banning him from public office. Such an outcome is not outside the realm of possibility.
Even if he survives impeachment, Trump faces some very real legal challenges. New York prosecutors are investigating his payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Georgia is looking into his phone call pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find votes” in the November election. And federal prosecutors might review his words and actions prior to the attack on the Capitol.
He also will have his hands full keeping his business empire afloat, as it faces declining revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic and a tarnished brand. Trump’s company owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans due in the next few years and Deutsche Bank, his most reliable lender, recently dropped him as a client.
A political revival, in other words, could be a low priority in the days ahead. At that point, Trump the man, would become separated from Trumpism as a movement.
“I think it would relegate him again to the status of a celebrity and media elite with opinions on politics,” says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.
She adds that it might be difficult for another Republican to pick up Trump’s political mantle and carry it forward.
“I think what makes Trump distinct is not the policy message, it’s the way it’s packaged, and that comes from an entertainment skill set, and that comes from a showbusiness background,” she says. “A traditional politician cannot perform in the same way.”
For Trumpism to be a success, Republicans will have to find another celebrity – or go back to the traditional Republican values of earlier candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Donovan isn’t so sure Republicans can – or even will want to – turn back the clock.
“What Trump proved is being a slave to whatever conservative orthodoxy says is not necessary or even necessarily advantageous,” he says.
Trump ran against free trade, open immigration and an aggressive foreign policy, and was an ardent critic of cutting Social Security. Other Republican politicians might decide Trump has proven that heterodoxy isn’t so risky.
“A lot of people are playing with different things Trump has done,” he says, “but I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet.”
They may not have to figure it out, however. Even after all the events of recent days, Donald Trump may not be done yet.