On Wednesday, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., addressed the “Save America” rally and prepared them for their assault on the Capitol. Four protestors would die in the failed effort to prevent Congress from formalizing Joe Biden’s presidential victory. The U.S. Capitol Police suffered one fatality and dozens of injuries, some requiring hospitalization.
Don Jr. told the crowd—an assemblage of MAGA-hatted true believers, white supremacists, and QAnon nutjobs—that the Grand Old Party no longer belonged to officeholders in the Capitol. “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”
Then he promised to destroy the political career of any Republican who voted to accept the Electoral College results: “We’re coming for you, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”
In truth, Don Jr. was overestimating his family’s hold on the party. If Republicans in Congress were willing or capable of preventing Trump’s defeat, the rally wouldn’t have been necessary.
When the president took to the stage, he called GOP lawmakers who followed the Constitution and accepted Biden’s victory “weak” and “pathetic” and ordered the crowd into action:
“Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy,” [Trump] said. “And after this, we’re going to walk down — and I’ll be there with you — we’re going to walk down … to the Capitol and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women.”
The president didn’t follow through with his promise to “be there with you,” but instead watched the assault on television in what was described by a witness as a “bemused” state.
He didn’t remain that way for long. The assault failed, Biden’s victory was assured, and a furious backlash against the president began.
When Trump addressed the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee in Amelia Island, Florida, on Thursday morning, he received applause, but behind the scenes, it was more complicated. This was especially true because RNC members were still smarting from losing both runoff elections in Georgia, and thus control of the U.S. Senate.
“People are freaking fed up. Repeatedly, what I kept hearing over and over again was that the president is responsible for the loss in Georgia and the president is responsible for what happened yesterday,” said one Republican operative at the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “It may well mean that he will not have the same kingmaking power.”
Steve Frias, an RNC committeeman from Rhode Island, insisted that “Everyone needs to accept that Biden won, and that includes President Trump,” but he saw the real challenge going forward as finding a balance between holding onto the president’s loyal base and the more traditional suburban voters needed to win state and national majorities.
“There is going to be this very difficult balancing act,” he said. “The issues that [Trump] pushed resonated in bringing new people into the Republican Party, more blue-collar oriented. But his personality flaws pushed away people that had been in the Republican Party in the suburban communities. We have to make sure we make that balance work.”
Traditionally, it has been a piece of cake for Republicans to drive a wedge between urban and suburban voters using issues like race, crime, taxes, and fights over transportation and education. In the era of Trump, the formula failed in spectacular fashion, in part because a more racially-diverse suburbia is less amenable to the same-old GOP racial messaging. The larger factor is educational attainment. By a wide margin, well-educated, professional Americans weren’t deceived by Trump’s rampage of lies.
The Republican Party could come back in the suburbs if they focused on issues that divide cites from the communities that surround them rather than stoking the anxieties and paranoia of struggling rural and small-town America.
But they have to make a choice. Without Trump on the ballot in 2018, the Republicans were massacred at the polls. They gained back House seats (but not the majority) in 2020 because Trump’s base showed up, but the Republicans’ standing in the suburbs continued to erode. For example, Gwinnett County outside Atlanta gave John McCain 55 percent of the vote in 2008 but Trump only got 44 percent in 2016. In 2020, Trump’s 40 percent in the suburbs lost him the state and its 16 electoral votes. In the 2021 Senate runoff elections, Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler only received 39 percent of Gwinnett’s votes, leading to their defeats.
A Trumpist strategy of maximizing white rural support at the cost of more suburban erosion won’t work, particularly without Trump, which means that Republican Party will do better the sooner they are free from his influence. The Biden administration, Democrat-controlled Congress, as well as various state prosecutors, such as New York State Attorney General Letitia James, could actually help the Republicans recover from Trump by holding the soon-to-be ex-president accountable. The more Trump is discredited, the less hold he’ll have over the party.
In the end, a healthier GOP will mean a healthier country, even if it means the Republicans spend less time in the political wilderness.