The politicati are squeezing into the ringside seats, eager for the US Republican Party’s imminent cage match between the establishment right wing and the exiled wingnut.
It’s irresistible, honestly. But marquee prizefights can disappoint as often as they thrill. As aging UFC legend Conor McGregor found out Saturday night, sometimes the hype is too much to live up to.
Yes, there is a deep schism in the GOP between the traditional budget-conscious, business-friendly old guard and the nativist culture warriors still loyal to Donald Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, having exploited the useful idiot in the White House for conservative judges and a tax cut, now wants nothing to do with him or his ilk. (McConnell, according to a revealing New Yorker piece, is particularly terrified of the GOP losing corporate donors in the wake of the Trump-stoked putsch on Jan. 6.)
On the other side are the steadfast Trump acolytes, undeterred by the events at the Capitol, who have no interest in returning to the pre-Trump GOP. They want to purge apostates, and are trying to line up challengers to anti-Trump Congressional traitors like Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president.
Trump himself is fanning talk of a new splinter Patriot party, and egging on GOP loyalists bent on punishing his detractors. Even without Trump’s Twitter bullhorn, it looks to be a bitter, bloody punch-up—just the kind of thing to keep reporters happy in the midst of all that Biden earnestness.
But all this pre-fight chatter supposes that Trump will act according to script. Five years in, it’s clear the press still hasn’t figured this guy out.
Assuming he is allowed to run again (we’ll know in a few weeks’ time after the Senate trial), the idea Trump wants back into the ring to avenge his defeat is no certainty. Trump is a reptile. He cares nothing about the future of the GOP, advancing an agenda, securing the border, defeating China, or making America great.
He is lazy, inattentive and surrounded by distinctly C and D-list sycophants who, it is becoming clearer each day, utterly bungled the Covid-19 vaccination rollout. His business acumen over the past 30 years has been limited to licensing his name to others who actually know how to build things.
Wresting control of a political party, working with allies, scheming for political advantage, building a network—takes work, and the potential payoff is down the road. Just ask Georgia’s Stacy Abrams, who worked for a decade to register Democratic voters.
It is work usually in service not just of yourself, but of some greater set of values and ideas. It requires followers who you nurture and school, in hopes they will carry on your vision when you are no longer on the stage.
None of that is Trump. He is in need of instant gratification, be it money or adulation. If something like a network TV slot provides more of both, the hard work required to keep control of the Republican Party will be left to others.
Lastly, I don’t think he has the nerve to run a race he might lose.
Politics was always a means to an end for him, not the end himself. When he makes his first visit to Saudi Arabia, or Moscow, all will become clear.
Trump loves the idea that he still owns the GOP, or at the very least can cause enough disruption to keep himself the focus of attention. He will amp that—with or without his Twitter feed—for as long as he can. But I don’t believe he has the discipline, skill or sustained interest to make a serious attempt to take over.
So the question is whether Trumpism can survive without Trump. I don’t doubt his followers’ ardor, but without Trump himself as a unifying force, what is left? His charisma and bluster gave cover to a threadbare policy “agenda” that, while generally right-wing, had no real coherence.
Six months or a year from now, for example, how is an apprentice Trumpy candidate to come down on a particular issue? What’s the world view, other than anger and grievance? Beyond a certain anger and defiance, what can Trump hand down to lesser mortals that would help them succeed where he himself failed?
There’s no love for Mitch McConnell in the land, but it’s hard to see how the Trump wing finds real footing, with or without the disgraced ex-president. Rage doesn’t beget results. McConnell is as self-interested as the next person, but his strategy goes beyond what it means for his own future. And remember: he lost his Senate Majority post, and he wants it back. To him, anything smacking of Trumpism gets in the way.
The events of Jan. 6 were both horrifying and shambolic—a pretty good assessment of the Trump presidency itself. There’s no reason not to expect more of the same going forward.
So while I’m eager for the main event to get under way, I’m not expecting a long night. This fight could be over before you know it.