Why the Republican Party can’t – or won’t – dump Trump

With all but five Republican senators voting to scrap his second impeachment trial, the former president’s grip on the GOP is stronger than ever.

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Donald Trump is out of the White House, but his power over the Republican Party appears to be intact. On 8 February Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial will start. The first time Trump was impeached just over a year ago – and acquitted in the Senate trial – he was charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his conduct regarding Ukraine.

This time, one article of impeachment was brought against him for incitement of insurrection following the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, the day Congress had convened to certify the Electoral College vote. Trump no longer occupies the office from which an impeachment conviction would remove him. But if the Senate votes to convict him, there would then be a second, separate vote on whether to bar him from holding office ever again.

Next week's impeachment trial presents an opportunity for Republicans to decisively cast out Trump; to rid their party of the man whose insistence that last month’s Senate run-off elections in Georgia were rigged almost certainly contributed to the Republicans’ losing both, and the Senate along with them. Yet on 26 January, 45 out of the 50 Republican senators voted that it is unconstitutional to impeach a president once he is no longer in office (the trial will go ahead since the remaining 55 senators, including all 50 Democrats, did not support its dismissal). Among the 45 in favour of scrapping the impeachment was Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who had previously argued to delay the trial.

By all accounts, despite his general tacit support for the former president, McConnell has no great love for Trump and has reportedly privately questioned his mental stability. Though no longer at the helm of the Senate, McConnell clearly still sees himself as empowered to say what is and is not worthy of the Republican Party. On 2 February, he came out in defence of the House Republican Liz Cheney (daughter of Dick Cheney, George W Bush’s vice president), who has come under attack from sections of her own party for being one of a handful of House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.

McConnell also appeared to take aim at Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected House Republican with a history of pushing conspiracy theories – including, in 2018, floating the idea on social media that a space laser controlled in part by the Rothschilds was responsible for forest fires in California. Though it did not mention her by name, McConnell’s statement, in which he described “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as a “cancer for the Republican Party and our country”, was broadly understood to be about Greene, who defended herself on Twitter and has vowed to meet with Trump soon.

McConnell’s statement was a surprise, given his prior reputation for staying silent when Trump tweeted or said outrageous things during his presidency. But without action, it is only a statement. McConnell may hope that, if Trump’s impeachment conviction can be avoided, he can retain the support of Trump's base, while shedding the flagrant lies and conspiracies. But lies and conspiracies have been central to Trump’s political project from the beginning: they and Trump’s legacy will either be dealt with together, or not at all.

[See also: Some of the New Statesman's best coverage of the Trump era]

It is not only conspiracy theorists such as Greene or hardcore Trumpists – such as the Florida House Republican Matt Gaetz, who tweeted that his love for Trump was such that he’d never love another president – who remain tethered to the former president. Cheney has arguably faced more pushback from within her own party for voting to impeach Trump than Greene has faced for her embrace of conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, on 28 January the House minority leader Kevin McCarthy paid a visit to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s social club in Florida and his current residence. (Here, too, Trump disrespects norms: local officials are currently investigating whether or not Trump is violating a pre-existing legal agreement by staying there.) Afterwards, team Trump put out a statement saying Trump and McCarthy “discussed many topics, number one of which was taking back the House in 2022. President Trump's popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time.”

McCarthy had previously said that everybody across the country held responsibility for the events of 6 January, a neat way of saying that nobody has to take responsibility at all. The Republican senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said that Trump could be held accountable without the Senate voting to convict him. There may be a world in which that would be plausible, but it is not the world in which the top-ranking House Republican flies to Florida to kiss the ring of the accused.

During Trump’s presidency three conservative justices were confirmed on the Supreme Court and tax cuts made for the rich. His term culminated with thousands of people dying every day from a mishandled pandemic, and with an angry mob storming the Capitol building, an event in which five people died, including a Capitol Police officer, with two other Capitol Police officers who responded to the insurrection having since reportedly taken their own lives.

Republicans in Congress are demonstrating every day that they believe that the former – the confirmation of conservative justices and tax cuts – is more important than the latter: mass death and violence. Republicans appear to have decided that leaving Trump with control over their party is easier than barring him from holding future office, either because they sincerely approve of him or his political platform, or because they are afraid of losing their seats if they forgo his support, or that of his supporters – or both.

Only five Republican senators voted against the effort to dismiss the Senate impeachment trial. It is possible that more Republicans than that will vote to convict Trump in the trial itself (in which a two-thirds majority will be required to convict him). But it’s also possible that some of those five Republicans will vote to acquit him. After all, they want to continue to win their seats and that may prove more important to them than whatever is lost in the process.

[See also: Richard J Evans on why Trump isn't a fascist]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

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

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