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Impeachment is over. Now what?

Exodus of diversity in GOP might embolden Trump supporters

Trump lawyers William J. Brennan, left, and Michael van der Veen exchange fist bumps in the Senate subway on Feb. 13 after the former president’s acquittal.
Trump lawyers William J. Brennan, left, and Michael van der Veen exchange fist bumps in the Senate subway on Feb. 13 after the former president’s acquittal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS Fifty-seven senators voted to convict Donald Trump of inciting insurrection, a clear majority but not the two-thirds needed to find him guilty. Still, the bipartisan coalition against Trump, both in the House and the Senate, reflects how far the former president strayed from acceptable behavior.

But impeachment is now over, and Congress will turn to legislative matters on which the two parties disagree deeply. That is likely to make compromise less likely, not more.

Politically, plenty of questions remain. Will Trump’s influence among Republicans wane, or will his political clout within the party remain high? Are we in a transition from a focus on the Republican Party to a focus on President Joe Biden and his agenda?

Trump has already promised his return to the political spotlight. He needs the crowds and the excitement, and he will want to keep alive talk about a 2024 run (even if he ultimately decides against it).

The seven Republican senators who found him guilty — and the Trump-critical speech by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after his vote — reflect both a divide in the party and the reality that most politically ambitious Republicans remain afraid of Trump or want to position themselves as his heir, should he decide against seeking the GOP presidential nomination again.

Certainly, some grassroots Republicans, tired of the rhetoric and behavior from Trump, as well as senators like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Texas’s Ted Cruz, continue to leave the party. And some of Trump’s defenders and supporters, like his United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, are trying to reposition themselves for a post-Trump era by now criticizing the former president.

But the GOP has changed at the grassroots level over the past two decades, making it difficult for pragmatists and establishment conservatives to regain control of the party.

Trump’s white, working-class message continues to resonate among rural voters, white evangelicals and whites without a college degree, who see themselves under attack.

Even with Biden in the White House, Republican voters will readily believe the Trump/GOP message that the Democrats are socialists and abortionists, that immigrants will change our culture, and that the Deep State needs to be ferreted out and destroyed.

In other words, the America First message that proved so effective for Trump from his entry into the 2016 presidential race to the 2020 election is likely to continue to have great appeal in the party.

Indeed, the widely discussed exit over the last few years of college-educated suburban voters from the Republican Party only serves to strengthen the clout of Trump supporters inside the GOP, both at the grassroots level and among elected officials.

The censuring of numerous Republican officeholders, including Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, because they did not follow the Trump party line, demonstrates the ideological orientation, political muscle and commitment to Trumpism in the GOP across the country.

No, the censures don’t matter much, but they do remind us who is running the GOP right now.

Obviously, each state is different, and some state parties will be more tolerant of “conscience” votes — especially in Democratic states like Maryland and Massachusetts, where Republican governors have supported Trump’s conviction.

But while relatively high-profile current and former Republicans such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, former Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland continue to get plenty of airtime on cable news stations to criticize Trump and their party, they represent just a small fraction of today’s GOP.

Of course, there are plenty of caveats and question marks. In some places, the exit of upscale voters from the GOP will help pro-Trump hopefuls get nominated but will hurt Republicans in general elections. Arizona is an obvious case.

In other states and districts, pro-Trump Republicans may take advantage of the Biden midterm election to swipe a seat that was previously held by a mainstream Republican or a Democrat.

And much depends on how exactly Trump behaves from now on. Like most independent observers, I expect him to go after those in his party who have criticized him. But will he have growing legal problems that cost him financially or politically? McConnell seemed to invite such problems for the former president. And Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson’s lawsuit against Trump, filed Tuesday, might just be the beginning of Trump’s legal woes.

And how will Biden perform in office? Will the vaccines effectively limit the spread of the coronavirus, or will Americans grow increasingly unhappy with the government’s response six months from now? And how will the economy perform?

The key to 2022 is likely to rest on how active Trump becomes over this campaign cycle, whether Democrats continues to define the GOP over the next 18 months as a party of radicalism and intolerance, and how Biden performs in office.

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