It is as paradoxical as it is real. The man widely blamed in establishment circles for losing an eminently winnable presidential election – and control of the Senate to boot – is the same man the party leadership must now depend upon more than ever.
If that was not clear before this past weekend, it certainly is now following the raucous reception which greeted a rejuvenated Donald Trump at the premier event of the conservative year, the 2021 CPAC convention. While questions had persisted since Election Day about whether grassroots activists would move on from the 45th president, the crowd treated Trump as a heroic figure who remains very much in their hearts and on their minds.
Nevertheless, you’ve doubtless heard the grumbles from mainstream Republicans stunned by the election and its aftermath who never understood or embraced the Trump movement – but were willing to bask in the power it conferred upon them. They are asking a contemporary iteration of an age-old rhetorical question usually posed by those more concerned with victory at any cost than effective policy: would you rather compromise and win, or hold firm to your beliefs and lose? Would you prefer to cling to your guns, religion and Trump – and kiss control of the White House and Congress goodbye for as far as the eye can see?
Can’t Live With Him, Can’t Live Without Him
That false choice is being implicitly offered to conservatives these days by GOP leaders desperately scrambling to define their party in the wake of an election that left them powerless. They believe Trump is now toxic to the party. And yet they realize the paradoxical and awful – to them – reality that he is crucial to victory in the upcoming midterm and presidential elections.
If the 45th president had been re-elected, he would have served out his second term and then moved on with his life, leaving in his wake a party fully committed to an unambiguous agenda – America First. After all, the MAGA platform would have been upvoted by the nation twice.
Instead, the GOP is left to engage in a perilous hangover that far exceeds the usual finger-pointing which follows defeat for the highest office in the land. The events of January 6 split the party root from branch – or establishment from grassroots – confirming the worst fears of embedded party regulars while doing little to separate Trump from his millions of passionate supporters. And this leaves the party, to put it mildly, in the lurch.
While no one, perhaps even Trump, can be sure what grand plan the Donald has in the offing – which mountain he plans next to climb – we know he certainly won’t sit still – nor remain silent. Some have opined that the 45th president might run again – daughter-in-law Lara Trump implied as much recently. And true to form, he left the possibility wide open at CPAC, stating in full Trumpian style: “Maybe I’ll beat them a third time.”
But given his confrontational style and take-no-prisoners modus operandi, he might instead be perfectly suited to the role of kingmaker – and breaker – throwing his support behind select policy initiatives and MAGA-friendly candidates while encouraging primary challenges to squishy RINOs.
Some believe he might complete his personal trifecta of conquests by adding a media empire to those he built in real estate and politics. But it is the final option which has scared the bejesus out of Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy and other high-ranking Republicans left to pick up the pieces after the party’s downward spiral following the 2020 election.
The Third Party-Pooper
It’s hardly a secret that McConnell, currently the nation’s most high-ranking Republican, and who like most of his D.C.-based colleagues never understood Trump or the MAGA movement, was so infuriated by losing the Senate – and by the Capitol riot – that he has vowed not to speak to Trump again. But a savvy political warhorse like the Senate minority leader also knows that, like it or not, spurning the bombastic billionaire means waving your party’s prospects goodbye for a good long time.
McConnell understands that Donald Trump can easily and effectively hold the GOP hostage simply by threatening to separate his supporters from the party, either through his typically unfiltered Swamp-draining narratives or by that final, nuclear option which must not be named: a third party.
There is little doubt that a party with the working title of the America First Party would siphon countless millions of voters away from the listless GOP. Unless such a party also drew significant support away from the Democrats – unlikely at best – it would all but guarantee that no Republican would hold down the Oval Office for the foreseeable future. If ten or twenty million votes moved from the GOP to a new third party – highly conceivable in the case of Trump – any Democrat with a pulse would glide to a landslide victory.
Trump has always been about one thing above all others. Add up the wealth, fame and power he has amassed and the sum is his one real passion: winning. He spoke of it constantly during his five and a half years as candidate and president, most famously promising in 2016 that he would win so often as president that the country would actually become sick of winning. He knows perfectly well that a third party will not win because of the impenetrable fortress of infrastructure built by the two major parties, leading to their long and exclusive hold on national power. That is why the new president effectively ruled out the notion on Sunday in his most consequential speech since leaving office.
While Trump could foreseeably run again, he is unlikely to win. He could turn his attention to the media, providing himself a fresh megaphone to replace his disabled social media accounts, but that will take a great deal of time to get such an enterprise up and running. Thus, the best guess for a man who places victories, big and small, above all else is that he will be able to claim the most triumphs by wielding the outsized influence of his post-presidency bully pulpit on future policy debates and national political races. He can thus claim to have amassed yet more wins in influencing the course of history from both inside and outside the White House.
GOP is Gonna Need a Bigger Boat
If he does decide to settle for the role of kingmaker, Donald Trump would be forgoing the undeniable appeal – to him and his supporters – of holding the GOP’s feet to the fire with a new conservative/populist/nationalist political party. But even he must bow to the bitter reality that such a move would lead to the virtually certain defeat of both parties, and in the process severely weaken or even destroy the future of not just the GOP, but the America First movement itself.
Indeed, based on his coming-out at CPAC and the lingering questions it answered, and no matter how the former president decides to invest his future, the conclusion is unavoidable: the Republican party needs Donald Trump a whole lot more than he needs the GOP.
Read more from Tim Donner.