The ex-president is making many Republicans nervous with his announcement that he will “somehow come back.” Now there is even talk that he could form his own party. The Democrats in particular would benefit from such a split.
Before Donald Trump left Washington on Wednesday, he gave a short speech. And he ended with a remarkable sentence: “We will be back in some form,” he said. Since Trump often speaks of himself in the pluralis majestatis, that can be roughly translated as, “I’ll be back in some form.”
To Trump’s supporters, that sounded like a promise. To many Republicans in Washington, on the other hand, it sounded like a threat. They are especially nervous about the word “somehow.”
Since January 20, the Republicans have found themselves in a position they have not known for a long time: in triple opposition. They already lost their majority in the House of Representatives in Washington in 2018. Since Wednesday, they are also rid of the White House, there sits no longer Trump, but the Democrat Joe Biden. The same applies to the Senate. In this chamber of Congress, both parties hold 50 of the 100 seats each. But because Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris has the deciding vote in the event of a stalemate, the Democrats are the de facto new majority faction. Democrat Chuck Schumer has replaced Republican Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader.
To change that, Republicans need to win elections. The question is, which Republicans? The party may look united, but in reality it is deeply divided. And that’s because of Trump.
Trump is still extremely popular with the party base
There are quite a few representatives of the party in Washington – McConnell is one of them – who attribute both the defeat in the presidential election and the loss of the Senate majority to Trump. Had the latter tempered his strident right-wing populism somewhat, educated, affluent, white voters in the suburbs would not have voted for Biden in droves on Nov. 3, the theory goes. And if Trump hadn’t spent weeks after the defeat spreading the lie of fraud and engaged in a kind of cold coup, Republican Senate candidates wouldn’t have lost in the Georgia runoff. In other words, if Trump hadn’t been so much Trump, Republicans would be in a better position now.
Trump’s role in storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 has given his critics even more ammunition. They hold the president partly responsible for a mob of his supporters attacking the House that day. On the other hand, Trump remains extremely popular with the party base. That explains why a large part of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives went along with his lies of stolen election victory until the end. Representatives must stand for direct re-election every two years. If they oppose Trump, they risk being seen as not loyal enough by party activists at home and being replaced by a more right-wing candidate in the party’s internal primary.
Trump knows that this influence on the party base is his most important tool to discipline the party leadership. His phrase on Wednesday – “I’ll be back somehow” – was probably also an attempt to show his critics in Washington the tools of torture. For that same morning, the Wall Street Journal had reported that Trump had spoken with confidants about forming a new right-wing party, which he plans to call the “Patriot Party.” Moreover, in his last hours in office, Trump pardoned his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who is the subject of a fraud trial.
For the Republicans, a “Patriot Party” would be a life-threatening threat
The U.S. has a majority voting system that actually leaves room for only two parties – one on the right, one on the left. Should Trump be able to found a third party and use it to attract a significant portion of conservative voters, the right-wing camp would be split. The Republicans’ chances of winning majorities again soon would drop drastically.
“Nothing better could actually happen to the Democrats,” says therefore also a Democratic party official. “With Trump, half the Republican Party left for Florida on Wednesday.” In other words, without the voters Trump can mobilize for the Republicans, the party is struggling.
It is unclear whether Trump actually wants to found a new party. That would be laborious and expensive, and its success doubtful. But in the end, there is only one way for Republicans to permanently remove Trump from politics and break his hold on the party: “They have to convict him in the impeachment process in the Senate,” the Democrat says. Removing Trump from office may have become moot. But a guilty verdict would mean he would never be allowed to run for political office again. There is speculation that McConnell would be willing to take that drastic step. In addition, however, at least 16 other Republican senators would have to vote against Trump.