Trump will cast a long shadow over Republican party despite defeat

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For Republican leaders it was, perhaps, the worst of all possible worlds.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

A victory for Donald Trump in the US presidential election would have preserved their power. A landslide defeat might have eviscerated Trumpism and finally broken the spell, giving them leverage to steer the party in a new direction.

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But neither of these scenarios happened. Trump gained more than 72m votes, beating his 2016 total and every presidential candidate in history other than his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, who topped 77m to clinch the White House.

Related: ‘It’s not over yet, right?’ Trump voters back president’s refusal to concede

It was hardly the repudiation of Trumpism that many had hoped for. It leaves the 74-year-old soon-to-be ex-president intact as the dominant figure in his party, an albatross around the neck of every Republican. There has been no better illustration than their awkward complicity with Trump’s refusal to accept the election result.

“No doubt his hold over the Republican party will be stronger next year than it is this year,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman from Illinois. “Biden won but Trump won too because he gets to keep his lie that this election was stolen from him. As long as he gets to say that, all of his supporters will believe him and then the Republican party will be beholden to him.”

© Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters Donald Trump campaigns in Minnesota in September.

A brash businessman and reality TV star, Trump staged a hostile takeover of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in 2016, knocking out 16 major candidates in the primaries in what amounted to a fierce rebuke of the Republican establishment. It was widely assumed he would then be demolished by the vastly more experienced Hillary Clinton, yet he pulled off a narrow victory in the electoral college.

© Provided by The Guardian Supporters of President Donald Trump protest in front of the Clark county election department in North Las Vegas, Nevada, on 6 November. Photograph: John Locher/AP

Despite a four-year presidency of extraordinary turbulence, regarded by critics as a deadly combination of incompetence and malevolence, Trump continued to reshape the party in his own image. He also proved a formidable election campaigner with an onslaught of rallies where his “America first” positions on trade, immigration and foreign policy resonated with his base.

He outperformed opinion polls for a second time and gained among Latino and Black voters, according to early exit poll data. Many Republicans believe that, but for a once-in-a-century pandemic and the economic havoc it wreaked, Trump would have been re-elected. The party also won seats in the House of Representatives and, depending on two runoffs in Georgia in January, is favored to retain control of the Senate, confounding predictions that Trump would drag it down.

He will make life miserable for the party for the next four years

Joe Walsh

Walsh, who unsuccessfully challenged the president in this year’s Republican primary, believes Trump will continue to loom large. “Trump got his people out and they’re more devoted to him now than they were before the election,” he said. “It means that Trump and Trumpism dominate the party, period. This cemented the deal that the Republican party is his.

“He will make life miserable for the party for the next four years. He’ll put out a word that he might want to run in 2024, so he’ll freeze all the other candidates who might want to run for president. If Trump doesn’t run, he will be the kingmaker. Whoever runs is going to have to kiss his ring and it will be somebody who will be Trump-like who will carry that banner.”

Walsh added: “It’s all going to be his show again for four years and there’s not a damn thing the Republican party can do about it because they let him do his thing.”

The Republican party surfed a populist wave set in motion by Tea Party rebels a decade ago but Trump shifted the emphasis from free trade and trickle-down economics to trade wars and an isolationist foreign policy.

© Provided by The Guardian Supporters of Donald Trump turn out in Philadelphia on 7 November. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

It now appears that Trumpism – a nativist populism infused with demagoguery and defiance of political correctness, science and truth – will remain a force in American political life. Spurred by conservative talk radio, TV and the web, it could take on an even more lurid and conspiratorial form in opposition.

Nine in 10 Republicans still approve of the job Trump is doing as president, according to Gallup. In the absence of an obvious heir apparent, he remains the de facto head of the party and its future depends greatly on his next move after inauguration day on 20 January.

I would absolutely put him on the shortlist of people who are likely to run in 2024

Mick Mulvaney

Trump could retire to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and play golf. He could cash in on his millions of followers – 89 million on Twitter alone – by launching his own TV network. He could remain a constant thorn in Biden’s side, lobbing insults from afar with a view to a rematch in 2024; one of Trump’s books is entitled The Art of the Comeback.

Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff under Trump, told the Institute of International & European Affairs in an online interview: “I would absolutely expect the president to stay involved in politics. I would absolutely put him on the shortlist of people who are likely to run in 2024.”

But Trump could be knocked off course by numerous federal and state court cases. He is facing lawsuits that accuse him of sexual assault and defamation, and the Trump Organization’s finances are being investigated by New York’s attorney general.

© Provided by The Guardian Senator Marco Rubio: ‘The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition.’ Photograph: Erin Scott/EPA

Although Trump surpassed electoral expectations, defeat is defeat. A reckoning for the Republican party is inevitable with moderates and “Never Trumpers” urging a fresh start. The party’s white Christian conservative base continues to shrink, adding pressure to diversify its voter base. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, defeated by Trump in 2016 and a potential contender in 2024, told the Axios website this week: “The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition.”

Lanhee Chen, policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and an adviser to Rubio in 2016, said: “My best guess is that the movement, the idea of Trumpism, fractures a little bit in the sense that Trump himself may be gone from the actual electoral landscape but there are elements of his policy agenda, for example his protectionist trade agenda and more aggressive stance toward China, that remain as lasting influences and get picked up by various other people.

“There’s also elements of the attitude and the style that some will try to pick up. I wonder, though, how successful people will be. What I’ve observed is when other candidates try to adopt Trumpist mannerisms or Trumpist attitudes on the campaign trail, it doesn’t tend to work out for them so well. Some of this is really unique to Donald Trump so I hesitate to to say that Trumpism will have a long-term impact.”

People who are humouring him today may not have as much patience when their own political careers are at stake

Lanhee Chen

Even as Trump continues to baselessly deny the 2020 result, earning comparisons with past autocrats such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the race for the 2024 Republican nomination is quietly getting under way. Potential contenders range from the Maryland governor and moderate Larry Hogan to former Trump official Nikki Haley to Trump’s own son, Don Jr.

The Texas senator Ted Cruz, the Missouri senator Josh Hawley and the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, have been prominent on Fox News defending Trump’s bogus claims of election rigging – a hint that they want to remain in his future good graces. But all bets are off if Trump himself decides to run.

Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, added: “Political ambition is a funny thing and those people who are humouring him today may not have as much patience when their own political careers are at stake.

“People who are running in 2024 won’t necessarily have the patience to sit around and watch Trump be coronated again as nominee of the Republican party. They’re going to be much more assertive in addressing Trump and who he is if they’re running against him.”

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