The Trump years may be over but Trumpism is alive and well

Donald Trump at CPAC 2011, by Gage Skidmore

On the evening of November 3, I, and undoubtedly many other avid Americophiles, tuned into the BBC’s coverage of the 2020 US election. 

But as I sat down at my desk to attend my 9 am Irish history seminar the following morning, functioning on nothing other than coffee, the outcome of the election remained far from certain. 

In the days that followed it became increasingly evident that former Vice President Biden was set to win the race to 270.

Instinctively, my thoughts turned to what this meant for Anglo-American relations. 

Would Biden torpedo attempts to sign a free trade agreement with the UK and finally put Brexit Britain at “the back of the queue”? 

Possibly, I feared.

In reality, Biden, who once simply replied “I’m Irish” to a BBC reporter, has shown a surprising amount of willingness to bolster the special relationship in his first month at the White House and looks set, as The Spectator’s James Forsyth has argued, to work closely with Boris Johnson on issues such as climate change.

However, after the terrifying events at the Capitol Building and the images shown at Trump’s second acquittal, my thoughts quickly turned to the future of the Republicans, Trumpism and President Trump.

As merely an observer of US politics, I have long argued that Trump’s personal image has restricted the Grand Old Party from reaching even more swing voters.

Nonetheless, the personal flaws of the 45th President, whilst numerous, were, for some voters at least, off-set by the understated public approval for Trump’s “America First” policies.

So much so that even Biden’s Democrats have made some pivots towards Trumpian policies, domestically at least. 

Even though the 46th President described Trump’s trade war with Beijing, which imposed extortionate tariffs on Chinese imports, as “an unmitigated disaster”, Biden has swivelled away from his unequivocal pledge to remove the tariffs to just placing them “under review”.  

This does not, however, provide Trump with a “we won the argument” moment.

The Biden administration looks set to rip up Trump’s foreign policy agenda. Instead, he declared that “America First has made America Alone” and will start reversing this by taking the US back into the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal.

More importantly, according to a recent YouGov poll, American respondents considered Trump to be the worst President in the nation’s history (his predecessor, Barack Obama, was chosen as the second-worst). 

And yet, Trump’s actions in the coming years may prove influential not just in altering the direction of the Republican Party but also in deciding who wins the presidency in 2024. 

After the former President was acquitted, the Trump team released a press statement that stated: “our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement has only just begun”.

This places the GOP at possibly its most significant crossroads in its political history. 

But is it even the GOP anymore? Is it now the Trump Party?

A recent poll, conducted after the Capitol was stormed and Trump’s second acquittal found that more than half of Republicans – 53 per cent – said they would vote for Trump if the party’s primary contest were fought now.

Trump not only commands support amongst a majority of his partisan supporters but also leads his potential Republican rivals, including his former running-mate Mike Pence, by more than 40 per cent.

Even more Republicans – 57 per cent – suggested that the 45th President should play a significant role in the party’s future.

Much of this support, I would argue somewhat overlooked by political commentators, comes from the genuine belief held by many Republican voters that the election was stolen.

It may be easy and factually accurate on this side of the Atlantic to see that Biden won the election fair-and-square, but for those who have felt neglected by the political system, there is no other explanation than a mistaken belief that the election was rigged.

If Trump is considering running in 2024, which thus far is merely speculation, then there is a high possibility that he could, off the back of many angry and disillusioned voters, win the Republican nomination.

Trump would, however, be 78-years-old come election day and may instead prefer to pass on his populist baton to a chosen successor and head to the golf course.

But let’s suppose that the former President is unable to anoint his successor; instead having his authority eroded by the GOP’s old guard. He may then choose to wield his power once again and sabotage the Republicans in 2024.

If, for example, he decides to create the so-called Patriot Party, then the right-leaning vote in America would split, and Trump would take many of the 74 million, including some of the 8 million ex-Obama voters, with him.  

This would undoubtedly be the most significant third-party candidate in US electoral history. The extent to which Ross Perot’s presidential bid in 1992 prevented George H.W. Bush from serving two terms in the White House remains highly contested.

But even if, as I would suggest, we accept that Perot helped Bill Clinton flip, at a bare minimum, the states of Montana and Nevada, this would be nothing in comparison to what the Patriot Party could do.

Their involvement would all but ensure victory for the Democrats in 2024.

Therefore, if the GOP seriously wants to break away from Mr Trump, it must invest time, effort, and at least one more general election defeat in a political reset. That is, of course, unless Trump himself concedes defeat.

Then again, I am not convinced that even sceptical Republicans would want to move away from being anything other than a Trumpian Party without Donald Trump.

In fact, just days after Mitch McConnell described Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”, the Republican’s minority leader in the Senate added that he would “absolutely” support Trump against the Democratic candidate in 2024.

Instead, the formula for a Republican victory, and something that seems to be mirrored in some of the political posturings by Nikki Haley, appears to be “Trumpism minus Trump” or “politically-polished populism”. 

The 45th President now has a lasting influence on the GOP. He may be the party’s nominee in 2024. He could pull the strings as the Republican kingmaker behind the scenes. Or he could almost singlehandedly guarantee the Democrats four-more-years at the White House. 

The Trump genie is most definitely out of the bottle; Republicans don’t look likely to turn back now.

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