Issue Briefs

Trump’s Long Shadow

Trump’s Long Shadow

Paolo von Schirach

January 25th, 2021

WASHINGTON – After the January 6th riots, for a brief moment we were led to believe that the Republican Party would do its best to come to terms with and shed the abominable legacy of Donald Trump. It was clear to all that the unprecedented violent attack against the US Capitol had been inspired and orchestrated by Donald Trump’s relentless barrage of lies regarding the November 3 “stolen elections”. He had convened his loyal supporters in Washington on January 6 as his last stand. His declared goal was to mobilize his followers so that they would do “something” to prevent the outrage of the final congressional validation of his opponent’s victory that was to take place that very day via a vote by both Chambers. The “something” that had to be done became the attack on the US Capitol, an unprecedented act of sedition.

Trump’s conduct

Well before this riot, Trump’s conduct had been not just unusual and bizarre. It had been openly and consistently outrageous. Even the most generous apologists would have to recognize that, after the scores of failed legal attempts to reverse election results in key swing states, Trump had no factual basis, no evidence whatsoever to support his crazy narrative of the stolen elections.

But he did it anyway. Sadly, some of the GOP elders openly supported these claims, while most of the congressional Republicans and GOP state leaders simply kept quiet. Either way, there was no indignation within the president’s party as America and the world were confronted with the demeaning spectacle of a defeated American president who just would not let go — the behavior you would expect from a Third World dictator.

Some Republicans reacted

But then came January 6th, the final act of this bizarre plot. Well, right in the aftermath of this incredible occupation of the US Capitol by a large army of enthusiastic and violent Trump followers, some Republicans were finally outraged. When the Democrats’ talk of a second impeachment trial turned into an action plan, for a brief moment it seemed that may be the anti-Trump momentum was gathering strength. Finally, a supine GOP would find its spine and say: “Enough of this!”

…But not many

Well, no. Not a chance. As the shock of the violent US Capitol occupation by the pro-Trump mob subsided and Washington got back to business, the GOP elders quickly concluded that any concurrence with the Democrats about a second Trump impeachment would doom the party.

Indeed, by convicting Donald Trump the Republicans would implicitly admit that they had been led by a criminal. And this admission would cause a deep crisis within the party. How so? Because the Republican establishment knows that Trump, despite everything, is still very popular among millions of Americans. By officially joining the Democrats in condemning him, they would attract the wrath of millions of Trump loyalists who happen to be GOP voters. The Republican Party may not survive such a crisis.

Do nothing

This being the case, what is the GOP going to do about Trump? Essentially nothing. Many Republican Congressmen and Senators are willing to blame Trump (just a little bit) for his “unorthodox” behavior; at the same time stressing that on January 6 he never explicitly “ordered” his followers to break the law by smashing the doors and windows of the US Capitol. The prevailing GOP narrative is that, overall, the conduct of the president was probably questionable; but by no means criminal, and therefore not impeachable. In any event, he is out of office, so there is nothing more to talk about. Case closed. End of story.

That’s it? Yes, that’s it. There is not even a shadow of an honest effort to have a serious post-mortem, to place everything that happened during the Trump years, and especially during the 2020 campaign, in context. Everybody knows that Trump started laying the foundation for what became his strategy to deny defeat way back during the campaign, when he began talking incessantly about massive fraud on election day due to mail in voting –without producing even a shred of evidence to substantiate his claims. And yet, nobody within the GOP said anything about these absurdities.

No serious effort to examine the record

Now, well after the elections, the clever ones within the GOP simply repeat some of Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and irregularities, claiming that they have not been fully investigated. “What’s wrong with millions of Americans asking to shed light on what they believe are shady election practices and irregularities taking place in many states? Wouldn’t we all be better off if electoral systems and practices in all 50 States were fully reviewed?”

Indeed. Except that the election systems have been reviewed. Beyond the dozens of legal cases Trump began and lost in court because of lack of evidence, there has been recounting, in several states, followed by vetting and final certification by election officials, both Democrats and Republicans, in different states. Furthermore, the US Department of Justice, led by Attorney General William Barr, unquestionably a Trump loyalist, conducted various investigations in order to ascertain the validity of voters’ fraud claims made by Trump. And they found nothing –repeat nothing– worth pursuing. In simple language, the November 3 elections were properly held according to the laws of each state.

To be clear, the DOJ did not conclude that absolutely everything is squeaky clean, across all 50 states. Sure enough, there may have been irregularities, and some isolated instances of fraud here and there. And they should be fully investigated. But the Department of Justice investigations found no fraud or irregularities on a scale that might put in question the integrity of the election system in any state, and potentially flip the result of this presidential election.

Let’s forget about Trump

But none of this matters for the GOP leaders afraid of saying anything against Trump that might ricochet against the party, and thus smear their brand. So, in the end, when we get to the impeachment trial in the US Senate, we shall find out that (maybe) there are 5 or 6 GOP Senators willing to risk their political future by voting to convict Trump. All the others will play it safe and vote to acquit. Some will argue that the impeachment trial should not have taken place because Trump is out of office. Others will claim that there is insufficient evidence to link Trump’s words on January 6 –inflammatory but vague– to the openly illegal behavior of his followers.

So, oddly enough, Trump will win this final political battle. He will be able to say, once again, that he is the victim of yet another witch hunt concocted by the Democrats because the deep state wants to silence him and with him the millions of Good Patriots who had found in him their champion.

A Trump relaunch?

Now, I am not sure that this wave of sympathy will be enough for a relaunch of the damaged Trump Brand. Probably not. But by proclaiming (along with Trump) that the Democrats are motivated only by mean spirited vindictiveness, the Republicans believe that they can save the GOP. By condemning the second impeachment trial as a futile exercise driven by sheer vindictiveness, they hope to be able to regain some moral and political standing. At the same same time, they hope that Trump will keep quiet in his Florida exile, this way allowing others within the GOP to propose themselves as the new populists ready to lead the leaderless Trump Army.

The Republican Party has no more substance

In the end, the emerging sad truth is that the Republican Party lost its soul and has no interest in regaining it. Glossing over Trump and his anti democratic instincts is a convenient way not to have unpleasant debates.

Indeed, by digging deeper, some would begin to question how could a populist, nativist, reality TV celebrity, without any legitimate credentials about government experience, so easily take over the GOP, the bastion of American conservatism, back in 2016. If you dig a little deeper, the disturbing answer is that there was no credible resistance to Trump. (By the same token, the Democrats should wonder how they could lose to such an opponent in 2016. But we shall leave this equally disturbing question to another occasion).

The GOP folded

The GOP establishment was so listless that it simply melted when confronted with Trump’s daily verbal assaults back in 2015 and 2016. When accused of being incompetent, weak, and stupid the seasoned Republican politicians with decades of experience had not much to say in their defense. And the gallery absolutely loved the spectacle! Millions of disgruntled Americans loved watching Trump the outsider, and his relentless broadsides against the GOP Old Guard. The more outrageous and mean spirited the attacks, the better.

Trump probably did not know this, but back in 2015, when he launched his quixotic effort –so it seemed at the time– to gain the GOP nomination, he was about to kick down the rotten door to a crumbling edifice. To everybody’s surprise, the GOP old guard quickly surrendered, with very little fighting.

For sure, there is a significant upside in all this for the Republicans. Trump’s populist, nativist and isolationist message attracted millions of new voters to the GOP. And this is good news if you are in the GOP leadership. Yet, the very same populist message scared millions more at home, and many abroad. Here at home, Trump’s popularity, even in the best pre-covid days of a growing US economy and rock bottom unemployment, never reached 50%. Not even once.

Forget Trump, but keep the Trump voters

Now that Trump left the scene, (at least for the moment), the same unprincipled GOP leaders who applauded him while in office are looking at the 75 million votes Trump got in November and concluded that the best way to keep these voters is to keep quiet about the former president. Unprincipled, opportunistic strategies may work, for a while. In the long run, I would not be so sure.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.