Here's a paradox for you: Former President Donald Trump has been sidelined. His megaphones on social media have been silenced. And yet, in his absence, the Republican Party is slowly and steadily moving toward cementing his most dangerous legacy in a way that might have been impossible if he were still commanding center stage.
Trump was often defined by the chaos he instilled and fostered in office — he was unable to set a course and stay on it, instead buffeting everyone around him with his shifts and the destruction he'd leave in his wake. The time and energy he forced his fellow politicians, his staff and the media to spend tracking his whims was a major drain to all parties. This in turn made it more difficult to lock in the type of substantive policy changes that Republicans wanted and couldn't achieve solely through four years of rewiring the federal courts.
Since Trump lost last year's election to Joe Biden, his outbursts, which for four years set the agenda in Washington and beyond, have gone quiet. Facebook's Oversight Board last week upheld the company's decision to block him. An attempt to launder posts on Trump's new blog back on to Twitter was shut down with prejudice. Politico Magazine reports that it's getting harder and harder for Trump to reach the MAGA crowd that he developed and to hold their attention.
And yet despite this, the Trumpian faction of the GOP has continued its ascendance in the Capitol and in state Republican parties with almost no resistance. The infighting in the House over Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and whether she'll keep her leadership position is only the most prominent and dramatic example. Vox's Zack Beauchump has catalogued ways other Republicans who dared to stand firm against Trump's attempts to throw out the results of the election are being punished for their heresy:
- Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defended the state’s counting process against Trump’s attempts to interfere with it, was stripped of his voting power on the State Election Board as part of Georgia’s new voting restrictions law.
- In a special House election in Texas held in early May, the Trump-critical Republican in the race — Michael Wood — got 3 percent of the vote.
- In January, Michigan Republicans removed Aaron van Langevelde, a GOP attorney who broke with the party to certify Biden’s victory in Michigan, from his post on the state’s Board of State Canvassers.
- At the Utah Republican Party’s convention last weekend, Sen. Mitt Romney — perhaps the GOP’s leading Trump critic — was booed and called a traitor.
And the lie that Trump pushed hardest, that vast amounts of voter fraud were what snatched victory from him, has become a core tenet inside the Republican Party. We see it in the election laws passed through Florida's and Georgia's Republican-led legislatures. We see it in the confounding recount in Arizona — it's a sideshow, but one at the sort of rundown carnival where the shadows drip malice and any laughs are cut with a layer of tension.
And we see it in the total refusal of elected leaders and senior members of the party to speak the truth about what we all saw on Jan. 6: Donald Trump attempted to overturn the results of the election and was willing to endorse any efforts, up to and including violence and intimidation, to make it happen. It was what got him banned from social media in the first place, forced to resort to news releases sent to the media to get his message out. It hasn't stopped the GOP from picking up where he left off while denying that any such attempt ever occurred.
This isn't an argument that Trump is like Obi-Wan Kenobi, becoming more powerful than before in being struck down. I would say Trump is actually in a precarious position. Even as he holds court at Mar-a-Lago for a stream of GOP luminaries seeking to kiss the ring, it's still unclear exactly how much juice Trump the person holds inside the party versus Trump the brand. We don't know whether he'll follow through with his hints that he means to run again in 2024. His endorsement might not be the boon it used to be for candidates — if it ever was, considering his track record — especially outside the Republican primary field.
No, this is to say that Trump's vision for tearing down the walls against autocracy has found a home in the Republican Party. And without his particular attention-grabbing self-aggrandizement, two things are happening.
First, it's allowing the work to proceed unhindered. Without Trump's constant interjections to sway priorities, Republicans are basically working on autopilot, like a computer in a post-apocalyptic world still running protocols based on the last commands put into its mainframe. It's the kind of plodding, relatively long-term strategic thinking — even if it's in the interest of short-term goals like winning elections — that's impossible with Trump looming over you, dropping new tweets into his feed every few hours that upend whatever you've been working on.
And second, it's allowing Republicans to work in the relative shadows. Yes, my fellow columnists and I have been raising the alarm about the GOP's attempts to infuse Trump's lies into state election laws for months. But it's also true that without Trump commanding the microphone, it has become easier to tune out these warnings. Even in March, just two months into the Biden era, audience numbers were falling across the news industry compared to when Trump was in office.
Cheney's pending ouster provides a look at what things might be like if Trump still commanded center stage as forcefully as he did this time last year. House Republicans have claimed that any demotion has nothing to do with her condemning Trump's role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot or her vote to impeach him. Instead, it's that she is "not being productive" by focusing on the past and threatening the chance to retake the majority in the midterms. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said it's about her ability "to carry out the message" of the party.
But on Wednesday, Trump said in no uncertain terms in a statement on his new blog why Cheney has to go, saying she "continues to unknowingly and foolishly say that there was no Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election." He knows why Cheney is being punished, but that kind of talk is far blunter than we've heard from the GOP officials working to oust her. Trump's habit of saying the quiet part out loud on Twitter would only put them on the spot, forcing them to say outright whether they believe the election was stolen or not. Instead, they get to talk about "looking to the future" or whatever the line is now.
Trump had a way of making every day feel like the end times. The relative calm of the Biden administration has had a soothing effect, which has benefited the GOP's efforts. It's not necessarily that Trump is pulling the strings from the shadows. But there's a definite upside to his lack of visibility for the officials laying the groundwork to make the next presidential election easier to throw to the GOP's candidate.