The few Republican leaders who have opposed President Donald Trump for years were quick with their condemnations this week as chaos came crashing down on his presidency. Now they’ll find out if they’re still mere voices in the wind or on the bleeding edge of a new, post-Trump party.
Larry Hogan, Charlie Baker, and Phil Scott — the governors of Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont, respectively — have all said that Trump’s inciting of a deadly riot on the Capitol warranted his immediate removal from office. In the Senate, Mitt Romney stared daggers at Josh Hawley — whose factually bankrupt challenges of Trump’s reelection loss instigated the violence — before taking the floor to denounce those like him as “complicit” in a “shameful episode” in American history.
Typically, their words would carry no weight with the rest of the party and yield little other than booking requests from CNN and MSNBC. This time, though, others, including those who for four years put their principles in hock to invest in Trumpism, joined them in their once-lonely exile. Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials resigned. Friends of Mitch McConnell's put the word out that the outgoing Senate majority leader didn’t wish to speak to Trump ever again. Vice President Mike Pence finally found the courage to tell the president no.
It’s a moment that Republicans who never accepted Trump might be tempted to see as an opening: a chance to banish his politics of antagonism and grievance and return to more pragmatic and policy-oriented conservatism. But those who spoke with BuzzFeed News this week are skeptical that a reversion to the norm is afoot. If the Trump years have taught them anything, it’s that you can’t simply wish him and his most devoted followers away.
“I think that people are trying to do an aftermath before the dust settles,” John Kasich, the former Ohio governor and unrelenting Trump critic, said in a telephone interview Friday. “I don't know whether we're going to have a remnant of Trump people or whether we're going to have a crowd of Trump people. It’s like being in a supertanker that for years has gone in one direction. How quickly does it turn? And are there people at the helm that want it to turn?”
The immediate answers don’t augur well for the Hogan–Romney–Kasich wing of the party. Ronna McDaniel, Romney’s niece, but more significantly Trump’s loyal handpicked Republican National Committee chair, unanimously won another term Friday. And Trump has vowed to remain engaged in party affairs. This week’s events — including Hawley’s leading of the charge against certifying the election results even after the riot — showed there are still Republicans frightened of crossing a president who only months ago won more votes than any losing candidate in US history. After he finally conceded defeat in a video posted late Thursday, Trump returned to Twitter on Friday morning to promise the “great AMERICAN PATRIOTS” who had voted for him that they will “have a GIANT VOICE long into the future.”
Of the sitting Republican governors who’ve rejected Trumpism, Hogan has shown the most interest in becoming a national figure who can help build a post-Trump party. He has spent the last two years making small moves — an Iowa trip here, an appearance on Meet the Press there — intended to establish him as the logical alternative to Trump and his copycats. This week, Hogan made headlines with his disturbing account of how House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a onetime political rival, had called him from an undisclosed location during the riot at the Capitol pleading for the Maryland National Guard’s help. Federal officials, Hogan said, had repeatedly denied his offer to send troops.
“He comes at it as someone who’s very interested in politics, but in the politics of the Reagan era,” Hogan’s political strategist, Russ Schriefer, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “It’s much more of a small-business-entrepreneur, get-things-done, practical view of the world that’s not hyperideological. He’s not going to try to divide people. He thinks if he can bring the party back to that a little more, Republicans will be in a better place over the next 10-20 years.”
Schriefer added that he thinks Hogan is “intrigued” by the possibility of running for president, “but I don’t think he’s given it any harder thought than, ‘I want to be part of the conversation.’”
Like Kasich, Schriefer believes the political landscape remains unpredictable after a week when Trump pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to overturn his loss there, Republicans lost control of the Senate, and Trump encouraged an attempted coup. Trump has all the while continued to tease a possible new campaign in 2024.
“Whether Trump is a candidate or not, the party is not going to shed Trumpism overnight,” Schriefer said. “And so the question becomes, in a post-Trump world, how does the party take what’s clearly a large number of voters who believe they were disenfranchised and don’t believe in the Democratic Party, but then also combine that with what the party was in terms of being a big tent — and also in the rule of law, bipartisanship, working with the other side to get things done? In the right combination, that can be a very appealing package.”
For now, said Nick Everhart, a Republican advertising strategist, the “insider chatter, Twitter finger-pointing, and presidential maneuvering for 2024” is meaningless “until Trump is done with politics or the primary base that was drawn to him decides they’ve had enough.”
Everhart added that the Trump-era party has been built on mistrust of institutions and populist anger — sentiments unlikely to abate even if Trump is gone. “This new GOP coalition looks unlikely to rally behind and trust the kind of candidate who was the GOP’s standard bearer for the last century. Until you show and can prove to me otherwise, that voting bloc doesn’t appear to be looking for someone different than Donald J. Trump literally or in style and approach."
Kasich lost to Trump in the 2016 primaries and considered trying again in 2020, but it was clear Republicans like him and Hogan had no path. Kasich instead endorsed Joe Biden and scored a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. On Friday he was noncommittal when asked about any future he might have as a candidate. He spoke more excitedly about books he’s written, speeches he’s giving, and an Instagram Live chat with Maria Shriver.
“I feel as a Republican I am on a walk in the wilderness, something I think other politicians have said,” Kasich said. “I've done my job. I'm just going to do the things I'm doing now, and I have no idea what the future is going to look like. I don't know exactly what I will do to help Biden.”
At another point in the phone conversation, Kasich, a CNN commentator, began reading aloud from emails and text messages he’s received this week. (“You know that I questioned your buddy John Kasich's support of Trump, and now I know why he failed to support an absolute egomaniac,” one of the president’s erstwhile followers wrote in a text shared by a friend.) Though Kasich feels a sense of vindication, he’s not sure it’ll be rewarded. As he spoke, he alluded to this week’s RNC meeting, where McDaniel received another term and members reportedly burst into cheers when Trump called in to say hello.
“There has to be some accountability for the enablers of Donald Trump,” Kasich said. “The whole mechanism of the Republican Party has to examine itself. And whether they will or not, I don't know. I mean, will these people who represented and spoke out so strongly in favor of Trump for the last four years — are they willing to say, ‘Oh, no, we did the wrong thing’? I think that's too hard. I mean, we're talking human nature here, and I don't really know.”
Everhart sees some sort of compromise being possible.
“Historically, just emulating the last guy is never a good strategy, because cheap imitations don’t inspire,” he said. “The question becomes, though: Who? Is there really anyone that can hold together the competitive coalition [Trump] created? If the right candidate in the ... pragmatic/moderate/governing lane emerges quickly enough, could they stop the migration of college-educated, once-reliable GOP suburban votes to the Democrats? Many in that category will stake candidacies on the premise and say it’s what’s needed. But at the end of the day, that sort of rebuild seems unlikely, and power abhors a vacuum. Someone who can inspire and be trusted by the Trump coalition with a bit more humanity will likely be the one who emerges to lead.”