intelligencer chats

How Long Can Trump’s GOP Stranglehold Last?

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Liz Cheney’s ouster from Republican leadership on Wednesday was a big win for the man she has refused to placate — Donald Trump. I spoke with Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi about the considerable shadow the former president continues to cast over Republicans from his perch at Mar-a-Lago.

Ben: President Trump has in some ways been reduced to a background presence in the political landscape. Facebook’s ban on him was upheld for now, he’s off Twitter forever, and he’s churning out statements on a junky-looking website that doesn’t see a lot of traffic.

But in other ways, the Republican party is as dependent on validating Trump’s view of the world as ever. Lindsey Graham says the GOP “can’t grow” without him; party leaders are making pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to seek his wisdom, such as it is, and approval. And, of course, Liz Cheney was ousted from GOP leadership on Wednesday for banging on too loudly about the stolen-election conspiracy theory that rules the ex-president’s world — and which a large majority of GOP voters believe.

In your view, does Trump have exactly the same kind of stranglehold over the party he did when he was president? Will the GOP just continue to stay in the thrall of a losing presidential candidate indefinitely?

Olivia: Yes, he maintains his vise grip on the Republican Party even while officially out of power, from one of his vacation homes. But not indefinitely. I think there’s a clear date when this either ends or it gets worse: November 8, 2022. This is probably obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing that most of the Republicans in Washington who are determined to bend to his will at the expense of their dignity and the Constitution and what’s best for their constituents are making a political calculation about the next election, not taking a principled stand because they are true believers in the MAGA cause. In a lot of ways it doesn’t matter what the motivation is if the actions are the same in practice, but on this specific point I think it does matter. The midterm elections are sort of like the date upon which Trump’s control of the GOP comes up for renewal. And as with most things in Washington, I think it’s easy to become so accustomed to how cynically the place operates that you can lose sight of the most central, obvious part of the story: Republicans are loyal to Trump because they are afraid that they will be kept further away from power without their association with him. It’s about getting, having, and keeping power — that’s the belief system.

Ben: Power for power’s sake! We love to see it, as they say. At this early date, Republicans look in good shape to take back the House. This may have less to do with any Trumpian dynamics than two other factors: Out-of-power parties usually do well in midterm elections, and redistricting alone may be enough to get the GOP over the threshold. (The Senate is a somewhat dicier proposition.) My point is that their strategy of hewing close to Trump is likely to correlate to a positive result, even if Trump himself may not be responsible for the gains. At which point, presumably the vise grip would tighten even more. Are you saying the only way Republicans are divorcing Trump anytime soon is if 2022 turns catastrophic?

Olivia: I agree with your prediction about the likely outcome. And yes, I think that is probably the only way it happens. Although, hypothetically, I could see a universe in which the opposite is true, too. That if Republicans were to win both the House and the Senate by considerable margins, if they felt for a time that they were not scrambling to hang onto power, they might have more room for something approaching diversity of opinion. But again, that’s a hypothetical scenario that I just invented for the sake of argument — I’m not saying I think that is going to happen. The last time that the Republican Party was having a real debate about their identity was in the lead-up to the 2016 primary. After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican National Committee produced its now famous or infamous autopsy report, in which the recommendation was to become less extreme and more inclusive. When I first became a reporter around 2014, I was covering Rand Paul and Chris Christie and Rick Perry — people who were a part of what ultimately became the primary field — and I remember really believing that the election would be an intraparty debate about isolationism versus interventionism! LOL. And then Donald Trump got into the race on June 16, 2015, and there was basically never an honest intellectual debate that actually mattered within the party again.

I bring up that history because I don’t know what it would require for the Republican Party to go through a real identity crisis and emerge with an actual belief system, at this point. They have no tolerance for that now, as Liz Cheney demonstrates. When will they?

Ben: One big reason Republicans were so afraid of Trump while he was in office was that he used his Twitter-bully pulpit to punish and humiliate lawmakers and officials who didn’t kiss the ring. And he had the muscle of the presidency to back up his threats, even if he wielded his power in a sloppy fashion. Now, he doesn’t actually have any hard institutional power, and as mentioned, his statements aren’t getting close to the media attention they once did. Does this make individual lawmakers any less afraid of him? Or is their motivation less “Trump might kill my career” and more “Hey, this is where the party’s at, best not to rock to the boat”?

Olivia: I think that a lot of Republican lawmakers experienced the January 6 insurrection as a warning. So it’s not just “best not to rock the boat,” it’s more that there are pirates at the helm of the boat, and Republican lawmakers work for those pirates now. I also think that fear of the original pirate is still so strong because even if his statements don’t get the attention that his tweets did, this hasn’t been tested yet in an election. We all know that Trump could tweet you out of office if he wanted to. We don’t know for sure that he can’t oust you from his current social-media exile, just by endorsing your opponent and doing a fundraiser with them and making his fans aware of it through far-right media.

Ben: Isn’t there a fear that this fealty could backfire in general elections among a voting public that never particularly liked Trump? Or was that anxiety allayed by the party’s surprisingly strong down-ballot performance in 2020?

Olivia: I feel like I’m taking a multiple-choice test 😂 I’m gonna have to go with B on this one.

Ben: I was taught that C was the most common correct answer. Not sure this holds true anymore.

Olivia: I always used to put C! I’m not a very good test-taker. Anyway! I don’t think that the individuals within the Republican Party who are concerned about long-term strategic planning for the party, for reasons related to actual principle or merely politics, are very internally popular at the moment. And whatever urgency existed for those normie Republicans prior to the most recent election was quelled by the down-ballot results.

Ben: Lastly, what do you think Trump’s ultimate goal is here? To return to the stage in 2024? Or more to live a pleasant Mar-a-Lago lifestyle, with none of the boring responsibilities of the presidency, but with all the perks of being a de facto party leader who can make his mortal intraparty enemies squirm? That sounds pretty much ideal for him.

Olivia: Trump is a person whose entire life has been defined by his wants. He wanted fame, he wanted to be or at least wanted to be known as a hotshot businessman, he wanted women, he wanted power. He got all the power in the world, hated every aspect of having it except for the fact that he had it, which pleased him, then lost that power. Now what can he want? He really is only recently involved in and deeply interested in politics, just for the last ten years of his life. I could almost see a scenario in which, in his retirement years, he got super into horse racing instead, you know? Instead, he ran for president. It seems that he wants to continue to feel important and wanted, as that’s his personality, and he wants to be occupied. I remember a colleague of mine, during the 2016 race, the legendary city reporter Michael Daly (once of New York Magazine himself) had jury duty with Trump, and he came back to the newsroom, and we were all like, “Tell us! How was it! What was it like!” — can you imagine Trump at jury duty?! — and Daly said, “He’s like a bag of cement.” He said that when he wasn’t being engaged by others, when he had to just sit there with himself, it was like he shut off. I think about that a lot when trying to make sense of him.

How Long Can Trump’s GOP Stranglehold Last?