After following Donald Trump loyally for nearly five years, Republicans at the highest levels are now reckoning with a once unspeakable notion that they’re better off without him.
The recriminations rang out loud Wednesday morning, after two losses in Georgia cost the party control of the Senate — thanks at least in part to Trump confusing and discouraging voters in the state with his repeated lies about election fraud. And the doubts were reinforced in the afternoon as rioters incited by the outgoing president stormed the Capitol to disrupt the certification of Electoral College results that rendered Trump a loser.
“POTUS fucked the party,” one Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Trump’s failed reelection campaign responded in a Wednesday text message to BuzzFeed News when asked how influential Trump could still be over the party after the Georgia defeats.
Pressed for specifics on how Trump had done that, the strategist replied: “Everything … killing independents and women out of the party.”
Asked later how bad the subsequent riots would be for Trump and his party, the adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a president who has threatened political retaliation against Republicans who don’t support him unconditionally, just said: “Bad.”
There were signs all Wednesday that Trump’s alliance was unraveling. Vice President Mike Pence, an unflinching loyalist who for days faced pressure from Trump to use his position to somehow overturn their November defeat, announced he would not intervene. Before violence forced evacuations at the Capitol, soon-to-be-former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — another longtime accommodator — delivered an extraordinary rebuke by dismissing Trump’s “stolen election” claims as the baseless conspiracy theories they are. And as the lawlessness continued, Alyssa Farah, who recently resigned as Trump’s White House communications director, tweeted what the president and so many of his followers refuse to accept: He lost.
“We need Trump to go away,” a Republican operative who worked on one of the Georgia Senate races told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday when assessing the president’s effect on the outcome. “The experiment failed. The coalition he’s created is not better than the one the GOP had.”
Moving on from Trump could be easier said than done, though. He remains popular with the Republican base after winning a historic number of votes for a losing candidate in November and is entertaining thoughts of running again in 2024. Two of his adult children, Don Jr. and Ivanka, are frequently mentioned as future candidates. Another son, Eric, vowed on Twitter to “personally work to defeat” those who didn’t indulge his father’s lies about voter fraud. And Trump himself promised at a Georgia rally Monday night to return next year to defeat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in a primary. Kemp, once one of the country’s most unabashed Trump enthusiasts, ran afoul of the family by refusing to intervene in Georgia’s presidential election. Trump also has signaled he could work to help unseat other Republicans he deems disloyal, including Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who early on acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. At a rally before Wednesday’s riots, Trump said he wanted to “get rid of” the “Liz Cheneys of the world” — an attack on the Wyoming lawmaker who’s been critical of his postelection rhetoric.
“It depends on the day, it depends on the state, it depends on who [Trump] and his team can recruit,” Rebecca Pearcey, a Democratic strategist who served as political director for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, told BuzzFeed News when asked how lasting and tight Trump’s hold on the party could be. “Can they get their shit together on any given day? Who knows.”
“He’s always going to have his darlings,” added Pearcey, who specifically singled out Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a promoter of QAnon, the collective delusion that claims Trump is fighting a satanic cabal of child abusers. Greene received more of a speaking role at Trump’s Monday rally than Sen. Kelly Loeffler did.
The Georgia results and Wednesday’s riots present a bit of a muddle when evaluating Trump’s influence and relevance in the future. Trump endorsed the losing incumbents, Loeffler and David Perdue, but he also, without any basis in fact, cast aspersions on the integrity of elections administered by other Republicans in the state.
“I think Trump will be very influential with the base for years to come,” Blaise Ingoglia, the former chair of the Florida Republican Party, wrote in a text message before the riots in Washington. “Anyone who thinks otherwise is not paying attention to what is going on.”
“For years, we have become increasingly frustrated with our own Republicans backing down at the first hint of political pressure,” Ingoglia added. “The reason why Trump is so popular is he fights and never backs down. Trump has effectively taught Republicans it’s OK to push back on ridiculous policy proposals and bullsh*t from the liberal media because the base will reward it.”
Reached again after the Capitol riots erupted, Ingoglia stood by his assessment. “But, for the record,” he texted, “I totally condemn the violence and chaos at the protest. … That’s not [what] we do. We are the party of law and order.”
Another Republican strategist, who before the Capitol riots had laid out to BuzzFeed News the ways Trump could be an effective advocate and messenger for Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond, retracted his comments and changed his calculations afterward. He said he believed the president’s influence over the party had been severely damaged.