IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What if Donald Trump doesn't go quietly?

The former president may be down, but he can still hold Republicans hostage.
Former President Donald Trump at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 3.
Former President Donald Trump at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, on Nov. 3. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images file

On Tuesday, Georgia’s voters elected Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock to a full six-year term. The outcome reaffirms the verdict the state's voters rendered in November, when Herschel Walker became the only Georgia Republican running statewide to fail to capture a majority of the vote. As Axios’s Josh Kraushaar observed, Warnock’s victory “caps a historic GOP embarrassment,” with 2022 being the first midterm since 1934 in which the party in control of the White House retained every Senate seat it occupied.  

What happened to the Republican Party is no mystery. The GOP knows it has a Trump problem. Indeed, since the former president announced his intention to run for president again in 2024, he’s made it far easier to jettison him into political orbit. Many Republican nonincumbents anointed by Trump — the celebrities, the neophytes, the soap-box agitators who wore their persecution complex on their sleeves — lost. Where MAGA candidates won, they did so narrowly while running far behind more conventional Republicans on the same ballot. His acolytes’ dismal performances, the grotesque company he keeps, and his ponderously lethargic campaign have given Republicans who pine for a post-Trump GOP all the ammunition they need. 

What happened to the Republican Party is no mystery. The GOP knows it has a Trump problem.

But Trump has plenty of options at his disposal to defeat the Republican Party’s counterrevolutionaries. If the most salient argument against Trump among GOP voters is that he and his movement are electoral poison, Trump can convince his fellow Republicans that the GOP will suffer even worse losses if they abandon him. As Sen. Lindsay Graham explained last year, Trump could make the party stronger, but “he also could destroy it.” And what happens if he does not go quietly?

Trump’s tried-and-true tactic for inducing acquiescence among Republican Party elites would be to threaten an independent presidential bid if he seems likely to lose the nomination. That mere possibility produced a mad, humiliating scramble during his 2016 run. Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tried to hem Trump in by compelling him to sign a “pledge” in support of the GOP and its candidates — a document Trump treated with deserved contempt. Priebus’s threat of “consequences” for failing to live up to this loyalty oath was empty then and emptier now: There are no credible “consequences” attached to violation.

The same apprehension that paralyzed the party in 2016 could immobilize the GOP today if Trump threatens to bolt with his share of the Republican base. Even if that warning never materializes, Trump can still make the party's life miserable for its members. In fact, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t. 

There are already signs that the Trump-friendly commentary class is retreating to the comfort of a fiction that has animated the insurgent right for well over a decade: that all the party’s shortcomings are due to the machinations of wreckers, saboteurs and deviationists within the Republican “establishment.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham, among others, blamed Walker’s failures in part on a lack of sufficient enthusiasm for his candidacy among “Senate Republicans” and their leadership.

It seems of no consequence that Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund poured $18 million into the runoff in Georgia when Trump, his allies, and even the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, left Walker for dead. As Politico reported, though NRSC staffers boasted of spending “millions” for Walker in the runoff election, publicly available data indicates the committee purchased a measly half-million dollars’ worth of television advertising in this race.

The question before Republicans is: Who will put their careers on the line to stop that from happening?

In this telling, the insurrectionary right absolves itself of responsibility for their repeated failures of judgment. Already, the incoming House Republican majority seems committed to engaging in quixotic flights of fancy that provide Republican members platforms to grandstand upon, even if that only reminds persuadable voters that the GOP has no interest in governing. And the most quixotic of all lost causes is the one in which Trump is most invested: investigations into his enemies.

“The No. 1 thing is this weaponization of the DOJ against the American people,” Rep. Jim Jordan, the likely incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in October. Jordan was referring to the process that culminated in the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property — a process that Jordan, with the backing of the House GOP’s leadership, now wants to investigate. As Rep. Kevin McCarthy warned Attorney General Merrick Garland, “preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”

The former president’s behavior indicates the allegation behind the Justice Department’s probe — that Trump was sitting on documents that are the property of the National Archives — is an open and shut case. Republicans in Congress might want to forget they ever regarded Trump’s claims of persecution so credulously, but Trump and his supporters won’t let the GOP weasel out of their rhetorical commitments that easy. The appetite for spectacle among Republican voters is real. Any failure to give them what they want will be exploited by the former president.

As 2024 approaches and Trump clings to his role as kingmaker, even at the risk of reprising the GOP’s dismal 2022 performance, the question before Republicans is: Who will put their careers on the line to stop that from happening? We know what such an effort would look like. Stung by unnecessary losses at the senatorial level in 2010, Republican institutionalists jumped off the referee’s chair in 2014 and intervened in the primaries to great effect. McConnell and his allies forced lethargic campaigns to shake up their staffs, convinced proven losers to step aside to make room for more electable candidates, and imposed a disciplined anti-Obama message on the party as a whole. The moves worked, and the GOP won nine Senate seats.

This year, the risks associated with courting the ire of the MAGA wing outweighed the incentives to save Republican voters from themselves. Maybe Republican voters will be less inclined toward self-destruction in 2024. But if they’re not, who within the Republican firmament will be willing to sacrifice their own political prospects to stave off disaster? Even if saviors exist, they need other electable candidates willing to subject themselves to the judgment of a Trumpified GOP on the outside chance that they could spend at least six years serving a thankless role in the U.S. Senate.

Anyone invested in the electoral health of the Republican Party knows what must be done. It’s another thing, however, to summon the will to do it. Moving the GOP away from Trump will not be a cost-free proposition, and it won’t engineer itself. Those figures who will take on this task may make themselves known soon enough, but they will encounter plenty of resistance. It is a risky endeavor that will demand sacrifices from those who would see it through, but with great potential rewards — for both party and country.