Why Donald Trump is out of sight but not out of mind for the Republicans

Even now, Republicans flock to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort as though their re-election hopes depend on it.

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For four years – at least – I, like millions of others, spent every day thinking about Donald Trump. There was a time, not too long ago, that I assumed I would think about him every day forever. That this was my life now – dominated by Trump. Every morning, I would wake up and see what wild thing he’d tweeted in the early hours of the morning, and how US politicians and world leaders were scrambling to react. His tweets would be picked up and covered on cable news and in newspapers, and I believed that this would persist even if he lost the 2020 presidential election.

But that hasn't happened. Instead, he managed to get himself permanently kicked off Twitter for posts that, as Twitter termed it, could be “mobilised by different audiences, including to incite violence”. The tweets stopped, and  coverage of the tweets stopped. He was suspended from Facebook, too, a ban that the social media giant’s oversight board upheld last week. Mentions of Trump are down 90 per cent on both platforms from the week the Capitol was stormed on 6 January. (He has since launched his own social media site on which all posts are by him, and where he is free to post conspiracy theories about the election he lost.)

Digitally marginalised, I expected him to hold rallies across the country, but mostly he seems to be ranting to guests at Mar-a-Lago, his resort and residence in Florida. Some journalists have said that they miss reporting on Trump – the chaos and the thrill of it. I don't miss thinking about him, nor do I feel nostalgic for being compelled to cover the latest horrifying thing he said or did.

But those of us who can now go through our lives mostly not thinking about Trump stand in stark contrast to another group: Republican politicians. They still fly, like birds in winter, down to Florida to see him and post about what good spirits he’s in. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose wife Trump famously mocked, flew to Florida to dine with the former president last Tuesday (4 May). In recent months, Trump's former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago (she is running to be governor of Arkansas like her father before her), as has South Dakota governor Kristi Noem (a possible presidential contender in 2024), and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who is up for re-election next year.

Meanwhile, Trump issues endorsements to the loyal from his perch in the Sunshine State, and tries to punish those who have turned against him: he has endorsed his former aide, Max Miller, who is trying to unseat Ohio congressman Anthony Gonzalez, one of the handful of Republicans who voted to impeach Trump the second time, following the attack on the Capitol.

Trump-centric Republican behaviour isn’t limited to Florida. It’s also still rampant in the halls of Congress, where Republicans have ousted Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership position in the House of Representatives because she criticised Trump and repudiated his attempt to delegitimise and overturn the 2020 election. The daughter of the infamous former vice-president Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney is one of the most prominent Republican critics of Trump, and was also among those who voted to impeach the former president.

The GOP is, of course, also taking its performance of devotion to the airwaves. Last week, South Carolina's Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump critic turned loyalist, went on Fox News and said, “I would just say to my Republican colleagues: 'Can we move forward without President Trump?' The answer is no.” He added: “If you don't get that as a Republican, you're making the biggest mistake in the history of the Republican Party.” One wondered, watching the clip, if he was talking to his fellow Republicans, or if, like old times, he was mostly addressing an audience of one: himself.

[See also: Emily Tamkin on why the Republicans can't – or won't – dump Trump]

It may, at first, make little sense that a party full of so many people who, just a few years ago, said that Trump wasn’t the Republican Party, that he was a con artist, and that they were better than this, are not using Trump’s disappearance from public to make his hold over their party disappear, too. But the Republican Party is full of politicians, and those politicians see the same polls as the rest of us, and know that 65 per cent of Republicans don’t believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

The reality is that a significant portion of their support base still thinks, if not of Trump, then of what he taught them: that they should not listen to politicians, including Republicans, who are not Trump. They know that the 2022 midterms are coming up and that they don’t want to be attacked by Trump while they run for re-election. Some of them want his blessing for the 2024 presidential election. So they kiss the ring, not caring how far down they have to stoop to do so.

It’s enough to make one wonder whether not thinking about Trump is temporary, or whether his party, which did not stand up to him when he was in office and evidently cannot do so now he is out of office, will allow – or even usher – him back into the public eye.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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