Many epochs ago, when Donald Trump first ran for president, Fox News, top Republican lawmakers, and the conservative intelligentsia (briefly) united in opposition to his candidacy: Fox anchors subjected the mogul to uniquely adversarial questions at the first GOP primary debate. Future Trump sycophant-in-chief Lindsey Graham told CNN, “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” Marco Rubio called him a “con artist,” and made unflattering insinuations about the size of the billionaire’s genitalia. The National Review dedicated an entire issue to indicting Trump as a crypto-liberal fraudster.
In hindsight, it is obvious that this cacophony of condemnation was not rooted in the conservative movement’s deep-seated opposition to entrusting con artists with presidential power. Rather, the GOP’s hostility to Trump was rooted in two assumptions: (1) that his nomination would cost them the election, and (2) that he had no personal investment in the electoral success of the Republican Party writ large, or the ideological mission of the conservative movement.
That first assumption proved wrong. But the second is plainly true: Trump was indeed a Hillary Clinton donor before he was her would-be imprisoner. According to several reports, his primary objective in running for president was to secure publicity, not to actually win power (let alone to advance the pro-life cause, or an originalist interpretation of federal regulatory authority).
So long as Trump was a president with a chance at reelection, his interests and the GOP’s were largely aligned. To many conservatives’ pleasant surprise, the mogul’s dearth of interest in the non-messaging aspects of his job enabled Koch Network apparatchiks to dictate the party’s legislative and regulatory agendas. The Republican Party wanted to cut taxes for corporations, and allow payday lenders to fleece veterans. Trump wanted cover for his own naked corruption. Each side was happy to oblige the other.
But now, Trump is a lame-duck president. By all appearances, his primary objective as president is to mitigate the narcissistic injury and brand damage of his loss by popularizing the lie that Democrats stole the 2020 election. The Republican Party’s top objective, by contrast, is to retain Senate control by winning at least one of the runoff elections in Georgia next January. And these goals are in some tension.
Although many congressional Republicans are echoing the president’s incoherent charges of electoral improprieties, others have declined to affirm the paranoid ravings of a man who is no longer of much use to their aims. Mitch McConnell, who will be the most powerful Republican in Washington come next February, has not condemned Trump’s incendiary lies. But he did tweet Friday, “Here’s how this must work in our great country: Every legal vote should be counted. Any illegally-submitted ballots must not. All sides must get to observe the process. And the courts are here to apply the laws & resolve disputes. That’s how Americans’ votes decide the result” — a statement that tacitly affirms the legitimacy of the election’s final, official results.
The GOP’s failure to unite behind the president’s demand to “Stop the Count” (in states where he is currently leading, while continuing to count votes for him but not for Biden in places where he trails) has not been lost on the Trump family. On Thursday night, Eric Trump retweeted the conservative commentator Dan Bongino’s lament that “some of the people on the GOP side, who just rode Trump’s coattails to an enormous GOP down-ballot upset, seem pretty quiet about the bullshit going on right now. SPEAK UP. WE’RE ALL LISTENING!” Eric also posted his own version of the complaint, warning that if the GOP stands down as the election is stolen from Trump, Republican voters will not forget their betrayal:
Donald Trump Jr., meanwhile, told supporters in Georgia, “The Republican Party without a backbone is gone, and anyone that doesn’t fight should go with it.”
Given that the Republican Party will, in fact, accept the results of the 2020 election (which aren’t all that unfavorable to its long-term aspirations, anyhow), the sitting GOP president seems poised to spend the coming months — if not years — effectively telling his supporters that (1) voting might not matter because elections are often rigged against them, and (2) the Republican Party does not fight for their interests.
Which seems like a non-ideal pitch for getting Trump supporters in Georgia to turn out for GOP Senate incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
One big question hanging over those races — and the next few years of American politics — is what happens to voter-participation rates when a celebrity provocateur is no longer president. Both 2018 and 2020 witnessed levels of voter turnout unseen in over a century. Trump was a bad general-election candidate for Republicans in the sense that he lost the party the support of a small but significant number of its longtime voters, at least at the top of the ballot. But he has also displayed a unique ability to bring longtime conservative nonvoters (primarily, though not exclusively, non-college-educated whites) into the electorate. The problem, of course, is that Trump has also displayed a unique gift for mobilizing Democrats. In 2012, the Obama-Romney race brought nearly 127 million voters to the polls; the Biden-Trump contest mobilized roughly 160 million.
In coming election years, voter turnout is almost certain to revert toward the long-term mean. But a great deal depends on whether this decline in participation is symmetric between the parties: If previously disaffected conservatives who were politicized by Trump make voting a habit, while previously complacent left-leaning young people and suburban professionals take a break from politics, then Republicans will dominate in 2022 and 2024. If the opposite happens, a Democratic majority large enough to overcome the American political system’s structural biases could emerge. Georgia’s runoff Senate elections will be the first test of what turnout looks like when Trump is neither literally nor figuratively on the ballot. If the president and his sons persist with their current messaging, they will increase the GOP’s odds of failing that test.