The Republican Party is in a 'no-win situation' after the Capitol riot, and lawmakers will be watching closely to see if Trump is losing his grip on the base

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell  
  • Republicans are facing a "no-win situation" after the Trump presidency, experts told Insider.

  • How do they satisfy Trump supporters, avoid alienating moderate Republicans, and build the base?

  • And the biggest question on GOP lawmakers' minds is what Trump's next role will be within the party.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

During the presidential primaries in 2016, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham made a now-infamous prediction for his party: "If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it."

The senior senator from South Carolina seemed to be referring to the general election that fall, and if so, he was wrong. Donald Trump, a real-estate mogul turned reality TV star, won that election as the GOP candidate.

But in a larger sense, Graham may have been right along, at least according to some experts who now say the Republican Party is in a precarious position.

"They're caught between a rock and a hard place," Jonathan Krasno, a professor of political science at Binghamton University in New York, told Insider in the wake of the deadly riot at the US Capitol. He described it as a "no-win situation" for the GOP.

Do they appease die-hard Trump supporters at the risk of alienating moderate Republicans? Or do they distance themselves from Trump and risk losing the most enthusiastic segment of the party's base?

Experts told Insider the GOP made a short-term calculation based on how popular Trump was among the party's voters, but now, especially after the Capitol siege, only time will tell how that calculation ultimately plays out.

Trump's Grand Old Party

Trump, perhaps unlike any politician before him, dominated his party.

"For the first time, in the 2020 presidential election, the platform of the GOP was whatever that guy in the White House says," Kevin Kosar, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-editor of the book "Congress Overwhelmed," told Insider.

Trump basically set the agenda for the party the entire time he held power, even when that agenda contradicted traditional Republicanism, and even though many lawmakers were initially critical of him. Graham, for instance, went on to become one of Trump's most enthusiastic defenders.

And while lawmakers may have had different reasons for warming up to Trump, the simplest explanation is that he was popular with voters while being highly critical of any form of dissent. "Republicans felt they had to line up," Kosar said.

Read more: Trump's violent MAGA mob shows the Republican Party isn't worth saving. Disband it and start over.

Supporting the president came down to a political move for some in Congress who knew many of their constituents voted for him, especially during a time when the chambers of Congress perpetually feel like they're up for grabs due to relatively slim majorities.

"The control of the House and Senate has pinballed back and forth between Democrats and Republicans more rapidly in the last 20 years than at any point in the 20th Century," Kosar said. "Because it's in play, the incentives are heavily oriented, particularly in the House of Representatives, to think in two-year increments."

Beyond the concern of losing Republican seats, individual lawmakers were also concerned about being "primaried," or challenged by another Republican candidate who could bill themselves as a Trump loyalist and win an endorsement from the president himself.

The perceived short-term gains were enough for many Republican lawmakers to embrace Trump, but they came with a cost, according to Kosar.

A party divided

In an Ipsos/Axios poll taken in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, 56% of Republicans polled described themselves as a "traditional Republican," while only 36% called themselves a "Donald Trump supporter."

In the November elections, Trump performed worse than the Republican Party generally. Split tickets, especially in the suburbs, contributed to Trump losing the election even as Republicans picked up 11 seats in the House.

Supporters of the president have cited this fact to support the unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud, though Krasno says the reality is that a lot of mainstream Republicans simply don't love the president.

This is why, according to Krasno, focusing on appeasing staunch Trump supporters could be detrimental to the GOP in the long term.

"That base isn't enough for them to win elections," Krasno said.

But, unlike most presidents who tend to fade into the background after leaving office, it's clear Trump has no intention to do that, and will likely dangle the possibility of a 2024 run over the GOP for years.

Because of that, "everything remains a kind of a loyalty test," Krasno said.

"The Republican politicians recognize that if Trump just keeps on making everything into a referendum on him, they'll have to choose one group or the other," he said.

Read more: Trump and the GOP may be headed for an expensive divorce fight over donor and voter data

However, Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University, told Insider she thinks the election shows the party as a whole is still embracing Trump's ideals, if not the man.

"Trump himself lost, but trumpism did not," she said. "Trump tapped into this anger that had been brewing for quite some time, among a swath of the American public that felt very much ignored."

As long as some GOP lawmakers keep winning by appealing to that crowd, they will continue to embrace Trump, Dagnes said.

The issue for the party as a whole then, she says, is satisfying the "Trumpy wing" and the "not-Trumpy" wing of the party enough to win majorities in Congress, and eventually, the White House.

While some Republicans seemed to be walking that line during the Trump years, the fallout from the Capitol riot is likely to change that, as some moderates feel even more opposed to Trump than they did before.

Republicans turning on Trump

Already, some Republican politicians have begun to turn on the president.

Ten House Republicans voted with Democrats to impeach Trump, making it the most bipartisan impeachment in US history. And while most Senate Republicans, including leader Mitch McConnell, voted Tuesday to declare the impeachment trial of a former president unconstitutional, five Republicans did not support the measure.

Prior to that vote, McConnell would not publicly say how he would vote in the trial, and told his colleagues their choice should be a vote of conscience.

And just last week, McConnell, who indulged Trump's election fraud claims in the fall by not initially acknowledging Biden's win, came out and explicitly blamed Trump for inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol.

Read more: If this is what Wall Street calls taking a stand against insurrection, we're in trouble

Krasno said McConnell, and others like him, are buying themselves time to avoid coming out definitively as for or against the president.

Federal officials have said they are investigating "significant felony cases tied to sedition and conspiracy" after the Capitol riot, and there remains a possibility that Trump may face legal consequences which could sway some GOP voters even further from the former president.

"They are all waiting to see what that is," Krasno said of congressional Republicans.

One example he gave was related to reports that Trump resisted calls to deploy the National Guard to the Capitol during the breach, resulting in then-Vice President Mike Pence taking the lead and doing so himself.

"If there is a big paper trial to back that up, that could be really damaging," Krasno said.

A GOP funding issue

Even if the party could successfully keep Trump voters engaged without further alienating moderates, the GOP would have to face another significant hurdle: campaign fundraising.

In the wake of the Capitol siege, Amazon, Walmart, and other corporate giants announced they would halt contributions to politicians who supported the president's challenge to the election results.

Due in part to a younger base that embraces donating to campaigns online, Democrats have done better with small-dollar fundraising, Krasno says. Meanwhile, Republicans rely more heavily on big-dollar fundraising from super PACs and corporate donors.

"If these people start departing, you've got serious problems," Krasno says of the GOP.

Keeping the party together in a way that satisfies Trump supporters, moderate Republicans, and corporate donors is going to be all but impossible, due to Trump's ability to leverage his power over much of the party, Krasno said.

"How do you survive as a Republican who wants support from corporate America," he said, "and support from the people who are most excited about Trump?"

An uncertain future

The biggest question at the top of Republican lawmakers' minds is what Trump's role will be in the party moving forward.

"At the end of the day, it was not the folks in Washington who got President Trump elected," Matt Terrill, a partner at Firehouse Strategies and the former chief of staff for Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, told Insider. "But his ability to persuade those grassroots base voters."

What Republicans lawmakers want to know, he said, is where those voters are at and how they feel. That will determine not only how big a role Trump will play in the GOP, but also how other lawmakers embrace, or don't embrace, the former president.

Terrill said only time will answer those questions, but lawmakers will be watching the polls and listening closely to their constituents to figure it out.

Read more: Donald Trump is about to fade away, whether he likes it or not

He also argued the 2020 election wasn't the "blowout" contest many had anticipated, even though Republicans did lose the White House and the Senate. In addition to picking up seats in the House, they also won some key Senate races and performed well at the state and local levels.

So while Terrill agrees the challenge ahead for the party is keeping the base while also adding to it, he says it's just not yet clear where the voters stand on Trump and other party concerns.

The other, and perhaps more difficult, question the Republican Party has to answer is an existential one: who are we without Trump?

The role presidents play in US political parties evolved greatly over the 20th century, according to Kosar. He says the president used to be a "creature of the party," but over time became the "de facto head of the party," something that Trump was able to achieve on a whole new level.

During the Trump years, some traditional GOP values even fell by the wayside, Kosar said.

"Anti-free trade, attacking big tech, pushing away our international allies, stepping back from NATO. That was new to the Republican Party," he said. "Now that he's not here, they have to figure out what they stand for."

It's possible that the Republican Party builds itself back up around resisting the agenda of the Biden-Harris administration, the experts said, similar to how the party existed during Obama's presidency.

But if they want to keep the Trump enthusiasts and moderate Republicans, while also building upon the base, resistance to the Democrats may not be enough.


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