As much as many Republican and Democratic leaders hope that the influence of former President Donald Trump will recede, the latter still enjoys significant political sway in the US. Trump’s popularity has declined in the wake of his loss in the 2020 presidential election and due to his absence from social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, after expressing support for the protestors who stormed Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021. However, his fame is expected to bounce back if he runs for president in 2024, which has not yet been officially announced, as per his senior advisors’ request.
Trump’s influence goes beyond the presidential elections. By mobilizing his 2016 voter base (74 million votes), Trump could bolster Republican candidates in the upcoming midterm elections in November 2022, thereby enabling it to regain the majority of seats in the US Congress. This scenario played out when Trump urged his supporters to help elect Glenn Youngkin as the Governor of Virginia, replacing former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe on 3 November 2021. Given how Virginia’s votes allowed Joe Biden to clinch the nomination over Trump by 10 electoral votes only a year ago, this victory is an important bellwether for the other midterm elections across the country.
Although departing the Oval Office on 20 January 2021, Trump remains an integral part of America’s domestic political sphere. Despite his absence from social media sites, his key method for effectively reaching his voter base and promoting his ideologies, Trump’s legacy seems to have some lasting, and growing, influence:
1. Most Republicans support Trump: Trump still enjoys the support of the majority of Republicans, despite criticisms from several senior Republicans and former party officials. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted between 15-18 October indicated that 86% of Republicans have positive views of Trump, compared to the 10% who hold a negative view of him.
2. Republican support for Trump’s candidacy in 2024: Trump still dominates preliminary 2024 election polls conducted by the Republican Party. A Politico and Morning Consult poll conducted between 8-11 October 2021 showed that 47% of Republicans would vote for Trump, while 13% others would vote for other Republican candidates. Moreover, 67% said that Trump should run for president in 2024. Although early voting polls are not indicative of actual results, Trump’s sustained support makes a strong case for him as being the next Republican candidate.
3. Trump’s ability to raise funds, donations for Republicans: Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, Trump launched a political action committee (PAC) called Save America. In only a few weeks after leaving office, Trump transferred tens of millions of dollars raised to re-elect him in the 2020 presidential election to this new PAC. These funds, which were accumulated up until last July, reached $120 million, and Trump’s team stated that $82 million of it had been raised within only six months. The PAC then pledged to support Republican candidates who do not oppose Trump or vote with the Democrats on the congressional probe following the Capitol Hill riot in an attempt to regain the majority of seats in Congress. The Republican National Committee (RNC) and several Republican candidates exploit Trump’s name specifically to raise donations. Some of these candidates running in the November midterm elections even make the pilgrimage to Trump’s resort Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida to meet with senior donors for more funds.
4. Republican Party’s attempts to get rid of Trump opponents: Several supporters of the former US President within the Republican Party are trying to get rid of some senior Republicans who voted to hold him accountable and convict him for encouraging his supporters to storm the Capitol building. They also wish to purge the party of anyone who criticized Trump’s allegations that Democrats won the last election thanks to voter fraud. To that end, the Republican Party of Wyoming has ceased to recognize the membership of Liz Cheney, a vocal Republican Trump critic and member of the Capitol Riot investigation committee. This trend will only serve to increase and extend Trump’s firm hold over the Republican Party.
5. Senior Republicans do not oppose Trump: Though many senior Republicans oppose Trump’s policies, they do not state this position out in the open. Despite the party’s preparations for the preliminary elections, no major or senior Republican figures have publicly announced their willingness to run for president so far. The former US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, even went so far as to say that she would not run in 2024 if Trump makes another presidential bid.
6- Continuing rise of Trumpism: The myriad effects of globalization that led to receding wages, the downsizing of many American jobs, economic insecurity, and other structural issues were the key reasons behind Trump’s 2016 win. Not much has changed in this regard since then, and thus these lingering effects mean that Trump’s message would still resonate within the American public for the foreseeable future.
Complexities of Political Repositioning
Despite the aforementioned indicators represented by Trump’s sustained popularity and active voter base, one cannot ignore the many obstacles lying ahead for the former President’s bid to regain domestic political support:
1. New presidential rivals: Though undeclared publicly, there are several Republican candidates willing to compete with Trump in the next presidential election. While some senior Republicans have stated that they would make way for Trump if he decided to run, some are actively devising their campaign strategies. This is evident in the tours made by some to key Republican strongholds in the runup to the Republican preliminary elections. For example, Mike Pompeo has tried to showcase his achievements as a Secretary of State in the Trump administration. Others, such as former Vice President Mike Pence, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, all act and posture as if the electoral race is wide-open. However, they also walk a fine line between laying the groundwork for a future campaign and not upsetting Trump and his supporters. Given Trump’s strong influence within the Republican Party, there exist a few Republicans who would defy him and run in the elections anyway.
2. Republican support for "infrastructure plan" despite Trump’s opposition: Trump expressed his opposition to Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, saying, "It’s a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb. It shouldn’t be done." He also called on Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the US Senate, to force Republicans to vote against the plan. Nevertheless, the Senate approved the plan 67 to 32 votes, perhaps demonstrating Trump’s minimal influence among members of Congress. He also threatened that lawmakers who did not dismiss Biden’s plan would face serious competition in their own re-election bids, which mostly fell on the deaf ears of several Republicans Congresspeople.
3. Disrupted communication between Trump and his supporters: After supporting the Capitol Hill riot, Trump was banned from all social media platforms. He then created alternative private platforms to spread his ideas and allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election, but they failed to garner the same support as other mainstream social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. This prompted Trump to shut down his blog "From the Desk of Donald J. Trump" a month after its launch due to lack of support and followers. Analysts in the US expect that Trump’s new platform "Truth Social" is likely to be shut down amid the multilateral presence of rightwing platforms competing for support from conservatives. This would affect the credibility of Trump’s platforms, especially since most Americans of different backgrounds prefer mainstream social media platforms.
4. Legal probe into Trump’s political, commercial practices: Trump still faces several criminal charges related to tax evasion. as well as charges related to pressuring election officials in Georgia to manipulate votes during the 2020 election. He is also under investigation for encouraging protestors to storm into the Capitol building on 6 January 2021. All in all, these legal obstacles may hinder Trump’s political role in the short-term.
5- Senior Republican donors reject funding Trump: Senior Republican donors expressed their refusal to fund Trump any further, despite the former president’s success in raising funds for the Republican Party and its candidates in the midterm elections. They attributed this to his insistence on allegations of voter fraud and his ongoing rallies where he promotes the false notion that the election was stolen from him. Instead, they prefer spending money on the Republican Party’s efforts to regain the majority in Congress in the next midterm elections or support other potential presidential nominees in 2024.
In conclusion, Trump’s departure from the Oval Office on 20 January 2021 has largely not impacted his popularity and influence within the Republican Party, as his 2016 voter base still supports his ideas. As such, most Republican candidates in the next midterm elections are reluctant to criticize Trump in order to win the support of conservatives who still stand by Trump and helped elect Gov. Youngkin. The persistent effect of this support will likely play a role in determining the midterm elections in November 2022 and whether another Republican candidate will emerge to compete with the former president, especially considering his health and old age.