President Trump may well be on his way out of Washington, but you wouldn’t know it from the way top congressional Republicans are talking about him.
There’s a sense in Republican circles that Trump being on the ballot actually lifted them to higher-than-expected success in House, Senate and statehouse races, even if Trump didn’t perform as well as they did. An obvious potential takeaway for Republicans from this election would be that embracing Trumpism worked for them.
And that would mean aspects of Trumpism are here to stay in Republican politics, even if the man himself isn’t a leading figure anymore.
“The Republican coalition is bigger, more diverse, and more energetic than ever before. That is because of President Trump,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wrote in a memo to reporters Wednesday. He was celebrating that House Republicans seemed on track to pick up seats and close in on Democrats’ majority in that chamber — the opposite of what strategists on both sides predicted.
How a surprised McCarthy and other top Republicans talked about Trump in the wake of the 2020 election sounded a lot like how they talked about Trump’s surprise win in 2016: He was able to reach voters they haven’t been able to.
“The poll that matters is the American public,” McCarthy said later on Fox News. “And you know what? President Trump knew it. You know why he knew the poll of the American public? Because he was out listening to them, talking to them.”
“Kentucky wants more of the policies that built the best economy in modern history, not socialism that would stifle prosperity and hurt workers,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday in his reelection victory speech. He didn’t explicitly mention Trump, but he was echoing Trump’s top attack on Democrats and talking about how congressional Republicans tried to enact Trump’s agenda, and now it looks like Republicans could keep their Senate majority despite expectations they would lose.
On Wednesday, McConnell also very carefully encouraged ballots to be counted, rather than criticize Trump for falsely, prematurely declaring victory in the wee hours Wednesday.
Elsewhere in the country, at least four new Republican members of Congress won because of their specific embrace of aspects of Trumpism — which at times were even at odds with Republican congressional leaders
- A QAnon supporter who was criticized by top Republicans for making racist comments, Marjorie Taylor Green, won her election in Georgia.
- An outspoken gun-rights activist who has also trafficked in QAnon conspiracy theories, Lauren Boebert, won with relative ease what was supposed to be a potentially competitive race in Colorado.
- Madison Cawthorne, at just age 25, won a North Carolina House race after unabashedly campaigning with the id of Trump and facing allegations of racism. “Cry more, libs,” he tweeted as he won.
- Ronny L. Jackson won a congressional race in Texas despite controversy over his time as the White House’s top doctor, and despite (or perhaps because of) his defense of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and “deep state” language about President Barack Obama, even though Jackson worked for Obama, too.
Not every Republican who won in 2020, or who serves in office now, has been as forward about Trump as these new players. But for as long as Trump’s been president, there’s never been a political incentive for pretty much any Republican politician to ditch him — or even criticize him.
Most who did it faced the consequences: a primary challenger; protests outside their home if it was a particularly high-profile moment; the loss of their base entirely to the point where some decided to retire rather than fight it out.
Maybe there will be more of a home for Republicans who reject the president’s style, rhetoric and major policies. Before the election, three sitting Republican governors — at least three former ones — said they wouldn’t be supporting Trump. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) was easily reelected after being the only sitting governor to explicitly say he’s voting for Democrat Joe Biden. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) won her race outright even after regularly, carefully, separating herself from him and voting against his most recent Supreme Court nominee.
Collins will rejoin a small coalition in the Senate of three total Republican senators who have openly questioned whether the president is right for the party.
It’s an open question whether that coalition will grow to speak out against Trumpism if the president no longer wields the power he once did. But The Fix has yet to talk to anyone in Republican circles who thinks Trumpism will be gone for good. Some wonder if it could even grow.
“If Trump wins or loses,” said Doug Heye, a former top official at the Republican National Committee and a Trump critic, “Republicans are still caught in that space of Donald Trump being popular with the Republican base. So if you want to win a primary or win in a general, you have to have that base.”