As I watched the events of Jan. 6, I believed that what was occurring was the dying breath of then President Donald Trump’s power. Eyes glued to the screen, I truly thought that the situation was so dire, climactic, and scary that at any moment security forces would forcefully enter the White House and remove Trump, who at the time was a national security threat. I imagined that Mike Pence, who was in an undisclosed safe location at the time, would be privately sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. I expected that every lawmaker in Congress who had lied and lied and lied again would finally and shamefully condemn Trump’s false election claims as an insurrection arrived at their doorstep.
Recounting this fantasy, I realize I was dead wrong. If a murderous mob won’t change them, will anything? With Rudy Guiliani’s apartment raided and scrutinized by federal investigators, Matt Gaetz to potentially be implicated in a sex trafficking scandal, the investigation of the Trump Organization being elevated to a “criminal capacity” on May 18, lawsuits by civil rights organizations and further questions regarding foreign interests, Trump may very well land behind bars one day. The question then would be, would the Republican Party defend an imprisoned Trump?
Short answer: yes. It will take a lot of litigation, contestation and time for Trump to actually be put in prison, but in regard to how this will change his support: I believe that it will not. The definition of a megalomaniac is a person who is obsessed with their own power, a definition Trump has embodied ever since he put his trust in Vladimir Putin over his national security team. He was a “might makes right” president who forced his party to surrender their principles and bend to his anti-democratic will. I had faith when the mob breached the Capitol that Republicans in Congress would recognize what has happened, and that a restorative future would be possible.
Today, Donald Trump is a free man. In fact, he is so free that he can still run for president despite the physical and psychological trauma he has caused a nation struggling to build a more perfect and inclusive union. And that’s not all: After the insurrection, there had been speculation as to whether the Republican Party would return to its Obama-Bush era self, or if its soul would remain in Mar-a-Lago. The latter has occurred, evidenced by Friday’s expulsion of Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) from the leadership of the Conference and her replacement, Trump loyalist Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), as well as by the indication of the House and Senate Minority Leaders that they will not support the Democrat-planned formation of a January 6 commission. Despite Stefanik’s congressional voting record as more of a moderate than a conservative, her new loyalty to Trump is seen by the party as a more important asset. As far-right populism and an obsession with one man took control of much of the American electorate, the Republican Party acquiesced and became an entity that refuses to acknowledge the most obvious truths.
The Republican Party is held in Trump’s grasp and by a base of supporters who see him as their desperate hope for a protection racket against liberals, feminists and globalists. They’re right, in a way: he is a protection racket, like a true mob boss. “The Don” has been living up to the expectations that his base has set for him, even if it has meant committing crimes and collaborating with foreign enemies to try and make his opposition lose. The party has stood by him for all things criminal, untraditional and incendiary. Why should they stop now and jeopardize their careers?
Conservative America was once an electorate that staunchly believed in American exceptionalism and institutional perfection. It’s easy to see why criticisms of the United States received so much backlash from this populace. Trump reversed that. His base of supporters is now largely anti-institutionalist and skeptical of all arms of government, even health agencies that have been America’s recovery engine during this pandemic. The Trump camp has for years repeated that there is an anti-American deep state controlling the country and that it is conspiring against them, and his imprisonment will fit right into that narrative. What is conspicuously ironic, however, is that despite the populism, his presidential term mirrored aspects of a nepotistic oligarchy.
Trump’s support will certainly stay at the same level if he is convicted while we have a Democratic President, House and Senate. This composition of our government will change the optics of the former president’s imprisonment; it will be very easy for his allies to claim that his conviction is a result of partisan or deep-state oppression. The Republican Party is more united than ever behind a person who exploits the personal frustrations of his followers, so the idea that Trumpism is a divisive element within the G.O.P. that will indirectly lead to a generation of Democratic governance is a delusion.
As for Republican elected officials, they are left with no choice, unless they decide to abandon their self-interest or aspirations for re-election. The party is solidly pro-Trump, despite a deadly insurrection that targeted some of its own. He must face accountability to set a precedent that future elected leaders cannot treat the presidency like a tool of invincibility. But, Trump’s iron grip over supporters and politicians will likely be unmitigated regardless of whether he faces consequences or not. Trump may actually become the most powerful prisoner that America has ever known. His obsession with power, pretense that Democrats are an existential threat to the country and weaponization of “culture wars,” will characterize the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.
The good news is that, imprisoned or not, Trump’s influence will dissipate as a growing majority of the country is not on his side. But given the anti-majoritarian stronghold that Republicans have over politics (filibuster, white and rural skew of the electoral college and Senate, gerrymandering, etc.), it will be a hard struggle. Republicans will continue to control local politics in many states for a long time and probably win future congressional elections during this decade (maybe even the presidency), but eventually the world will move on without him. The opposition to Trump will only broaden as his base further radicalizes. Based on how an individual who opposes Trump sees it, we may be in a similar batch with Liz Cheney, out of all people. When it comes to preserving the democratic basis of America, she has put her career at stake and joined the side of reality. Meanwhile, even some corporations are leaving the Republican camp.
Remember that the 45th President of the United States literally warned the Georgia Secretary of State in December that he “find” the exact number of votes necessary to surpass Biden’s Georgia count, or face criminal liability. I’ll repeat: the President of the United States said that. Republicans did not say a word. It does not matter if Trump goes to prison, defects to Russia, defecates on the grave of a military veteran or tweets out an endorsements of terrorists; he will be lionized and his wrongdoings ignored as long as he and other Republicans continue to cultivate a cult of personality through a massive weaponization of falsehoods. But the Democratic Party and its voters, which has recently reached its largest quarterly increase in affiliation numbers and greatest presidential turnout in American history, is the best bulwark against his influence. And just as the Republican Party is united behind him, the Democratic Party is united against him.