There are several indications that former President Trump’s grip on the Republican Party, while still strong, is beginning to wane — and that’s a good thing.
Typically, when U.S. presidents leave office, they voluntarily step out of the limelight — at least for a while. That precedent was first set by George Washington when he left the presidency, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of his example. It said the office of the president was bigger than the man, and it gave his successor the time and space to set his own stamp on the office.
And importantly, it indicated to others who aspired to hold the office, or change the direction the country was headed in, that they would have their chance.
Most former presidents have followed Washington’s example, which has led to one of the most stable democratic governmental systems in history. But not Trump.
He has continued to exercise as much control over the GOP as he can. But time and events are beginning to erode that control. How can we tell?
Several Trump allies and associates are challenging the “stolen election” narrative. Many of us in the conservative movement never believed the “election was stolen” mantra, even though there were clearly irregularities in some states, especially Pennsylvania. And we learned fairly soon after the election that then-Attorney General Bill Barr rejected the stolen-election assertion, as did White House communications director Alyssa Farah.
While the ongoing Jan. 6 hearings in Washington have a number of legitimacy problems (for example, the committee includes Democrats who led Trump impeachment efforts and some who challenged Trump’s election certification in 2016), they have highlighted several Trump loyalists who we now know also rejected the stolen-election narrative. That list includes the president’s daughter Ivanka, campaign manager Bill Stepien, campaign lawyer Alex Cannon, data expert Matt Oczkowski and Trump confidant Kellyanne Conway.
It is hard to imagine that they, or many others in the Trump inner circle, would have felt comfortable publicly expressing their doubts about the stolen-election narrative in the months right after the election. But a year and a half later, that’s apparently changed.
GOP presidential hopefuls are demonstrating some independence. There are several well-qualified Republicans who share most of Trump’s policy positions but are younger and not as alienating as the former president: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and, of course, former Vice President Mike Pence, just to name a few.
Several of the potential presidential candidates are beginning to demonstrate a little independence by endorsing their own favorite Republican candidates rather than the Trump-backed ones, at times ignoring his advice, and by highlighting some differences in their policies. And it’s likely we will see even more light between Trump and the GOP presidential aspirants in the coming months.
Several Trump-endorsed candidates lost their primary bids. One of the big indications of Trump’s waning influence is that Republican voters have declined to vote for several Trump-backed primary candidates.
News outlets have been hyper-focused on these campaigns, looking at various candidates’ efforts to secure the Trump endorsement, and then highlighting which Trump-endorsed candidates won or lost.
Last year the thinking seemed to be that having the Trump stamp of approval was almost a necessity to win a Republican primary. The fact that several Republican candidates – including some who were heavily criticized by Trump – have prevailed in their primaries over the Trump-endorsed candidates indicates the endorsement, while likely still an important plus, does not guarantee anything.
Senate Republicans ignored Trump’s effort to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump would like to see Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) replaced with a more Trump-friendly Senate Republican leader. And some months ago, he pushed that effort. Apparently, not one Republican senator went along with the scheme. While Senate Republicans may occasionally grumble about what McConnell is or is not doing, they know he’s been a very effective leader.
As president, Donald Trump implemented several very good policies, and the country and the economy prospered as a result. But his tweets and comments also alienated many voters and voting blocks, which cost him the election.
Most former presidents followed the Washington example and stepped into the shadows for a while so the country could move on. Trump didn’t. As time moves on, he will eventually lose his grip on the GOP, and it’s already beginning to happen.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.