Shortly after Josh Hawley said he would contest Joe Biden’s victory at the electoral college certification in Congress next Wednesday, the Republican senator had a bizarre exchange with Walmart.
A rogue employee at the giant retailer retorted on the company’s Twitter handle that Mr Hawley — and, by implication, Donald Trump — was a “sore loser”. The Missouri senator, whose planned stunt at most will delay Mr Biden’s certification by a few hours, replied: “Thanks @Walmart for your insulting condescension. Now that you’ve insulted 75 million Americans, will you at least apologise for using slave labour?”
Even a year ago it would have been hard to imagine any senior Republican other than Mr Trump talking so scathingly about one of America’s biggest employers — still less a global brand name owned by an avowedly conservative family. Now such declarations are almost routine.
Shortly after the presidential election in November, Mr Hawley said, “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.” Next week he will try to lay claim to being Mr Trump’s heir by impugning an election that federal officials have deemed the most free and fair in America’s history.
It is unclear how many of Mr Hawley’s colleagues will join him in this extravagant gesture. The normally formal certification will pose a dilemma for other presidential hopefuls, such as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Florida’s Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz of Texas. Mike Pence, the vice-president, who harbours 2024 ambitions as well, will also be torn. As the president of the Senate, it is his constitutional duty to certify Mr Biden’s victory — a role, as it happens, that then vice-president Biden carried out four years ago.
Mr Trump, who insists that he was cheated of victory this time by a vast global conspiracy, has made it plain that anyone who deviates from the Biden #NotMyPresident line will be regarded as a traitor.
The question is whether Trumpism can outlast Mr Trump once he leaves the White House and is no longer the centre of attention.
“Agreeing with the ‘stolen election’ narrative will probably be a litmus test for ambitious Republicans for the foreseeable future,” says Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin. “But as events move on it could start to fade.”
Keeping his powder dry
A lot will depend on what Mr Trump chooses to do after Mr Biden is sworn in on January 20. Shortly after the US Senate voted to exonerate him last February following his impeachment by the House of Representatives, Mr Trump tweeted: “Trump 2024!” He looks set to be the first outgoing president in more than a century to refuse to attend the inauguration of his successor. There are even hints that he will announce his candidacy at a duelling event that day at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
The majority of his party would like him to stay in politics. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll last month, 53 per cent of Republican voters said they would choose Mr Trump as their nominee. The next highest was Mr Pence with 12 per cent. Donald Trump Junior, the president’s oldest child, came third. “If Trump announces for 2024 then he would be the presumptive favourite straightaway,” says Mr Gallagher.
The odds are that Mr Trump will choose to keep his powder dry. “One of Trump’s most reliable traits is that he loves to keep people guessing,” says James Pinkerton, a former Republican operative who now writes a column for Breitbart, a far-right website. “I don’t have a clue what Trump will do after Biden is sworn in. He probably doesn’t either. Keeping people in suspense would maximise his leverage.”
It is unlikely Mr Trump will simply bow out from politics. Staying in the game would give him plenty of collateral advantages, even if he does not run again. Since November, Mr Trump has raised more than $200m for his supposed “election defence fund”. The small print shows that the money raised can be used to pay for unrelated expenses, such as Mr Trump’s legal fees, salaries for consultants, including family members, and on costs for his political operation. He could also ensure that Ronna McDaniel, his ultra-loyal ally, stays on as chair of the Republican National Committee.
“Trump is sitting on more money than the party,” says William Kristol, who founded Republican Voters Against Trump, a group of “Never Trumpers” that supported Mr Biden. “He can still call the shots.”
Mr Trump also faces an onslaught of legal challenges mostly in New York that could involve criminal and civil liability on taxes, bank fraud and sexual harassment. Even if he chooses pre-emptively to issue pardons for himself and his family in his remaining twenty days, they would only cover federal crimes. Letitia James, New York state’s attorney-general, and Cy Vance Jnr, the Manhattan district attorney, would both still be able to file charges against Mr Trump. All of this will cost him mounting bills in lawyer’s fees. Mr Trump also has more than $300m in debts coming due over the next four years, according to a New York Times investigation of his finances.
Even if Mr Trump plans to sell some of his golf courses — a questionable assumption given his love of their status value — most of them are lossmaking. The pandemic economy is not an ideal climate to put up real estate for sale. The Trump Organisation has so far been unable to find a buyer for the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC, which it put on the market last year.
There is also talk of Mr Trump hosting a television show, or even launching a subscription-based channel, to rival Fox News, which Mr Trump has put in the traitor column — alongside Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, and others who recognised Mr Biden’s victory. All of which points to him remaining in politics.
“The best way for Trump to make money is to stay in politics — that’s his business now,” says John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, and a veteran of Republican campaigns. “He could also charge money for people to attend his rallies, which will give him the cash and psychological relief that he craves.”
As Trumpian as they can be
But is there a non-Trumpian Republican Party struggling to break free? Evidence for its existence is sketchy. One or two governors, such as Larry Hogan of Maryland, and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, are trying to stake out a claim for a more traditional conservatism that strikes bipartisan deals and honours civility in politics. But both come from normally Democratic states and have little resonance beyond.
The majority of Republican 2024 hopefuls are trying to sound as Trumpian as they can. As a relentlessly ambitious hopeful, Marco Rubio is a good bellwether of the party’s direction. In 2016 he ran as a “reformicon” — a conservative who championed new economic ideas. He was also a neoconservative. Mr Trump shredded Mr Rubio in the 2016 election. Since then he has often sought to imitate the president.
Last week he attacked Anthony Fauci, the leading US infectious disease expert, for recommending that Americans wear masks. “Fauci lied about masks in March,” Mr Rubio tweeted — a reference to Mr Fauci’s then concerns about distributing scarce hospital-grade masks to the public. “Many in elite bubbles believe the American public doesn’t know ‘what’s good for them’, so they need to be tricked into ‘doing the right thing’.”
Other contenders, including Mr Hawley, Mr Cotton, and Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, are striving to out-Trump each other in their rhetoric. A key tell is their recurrent use of the word “elite”. The fact that Mr Hawley attended Stanford and Yale Law School — after being educated at prep school and having taught at St Paul’s private school in London — is no obstacle. Mr Pompeo attended Harvard Law School, as did Mr Cotton and Mr Cruz, who was an undergraduate at Princeton. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, and another 2024 aspirant, also went on to Harvard Law School having graduated from Yale. And so on.
The 2024 field is already crowded with people hoping to inherit Mr Trump’s mantle. But it is not clear how appealing Trumpism will be without the main act.
“These attempts to graft an intellectual veneer on to Trumpism are a little overwrought in my view,” says Mr Gallagher. “For people in my district, Trumpism is Trump — a middle finger to the status quo. I’m not sure you can separate that from the man.”
Yet by changing its name to nationalist-populism, or working class conservatism, you can trace the roots of Trumpism to long before Trump. In 1992 and 1996, Pat Buchanan, a former speech writer to Richard Nixon, briefly caught alight with the so-called “pitchfork” Republicans in the presidential primaries. Although Buchanan lost, he was tapping into the future. In 2008, Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential nominee to John McCain, championed the growing white working class element of the base, which had largely voted for Bill Clinton the previous decade. Mr Trump then took it further. More than half Republican voters are now non-college educated whites. In November, Mr Trump won 2,547 counties. But the 509 that Mr Biden won account for 71 per cent of America’s gross domestic product.
“I think it’s fair to say that this trend didn’t begin with Trump and it probably won’t end with him,” says Russ Schriefer, a Republican consultant who worked for Mr Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and for both George Bush senior and junior. “The Republican Party is unlikely to snap back to where it was a generation ago.”
It follows therefore that any Republican who wants to transcend Mr Trump will have to act with subtlety and even deception. Much as Charles de Gaulle pretended he was on the side of the French colonials as he was planning to pull out of Algeria, a post-Trump Republican will have to pose as Trumpian to keep the base onside. One or two figures, such as Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and Mr Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Chris Christie, have dropped hints they will try to thread that needle. But they would need great dexterity to stay on the right side of Mr Trump. Between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen, according to a welter of polls. It would be political suicide for any 2024 hopeful to contradict Mr Trump’s story of betrayal.
“If you look at how many names are jostling — at my count there are 15 already — the field is looking pretty yeasty,” says Mr Pinkerton. “But almost none of them will openly declare their candidacy if Mr Trump is still in the frame.”
All eyes on Georgia
All of which augurs badly for Mr Biden’s hopes of re-creating a bipartisan atmosphere in Washington. Next Tuesday, Mr Biden will find out whether Democrats can regain control of the Senate, when Georgia holds run-offs for its two seats. Ordinarily, the Republicans would expect to hold both seats. But having won the state by a slim margin — the first Democrat to do so since 1992 — Mr Biden can hold out some hope of a double upset.
Both the Republican candidates, David Purdue and Kelly Loeffler, are echoing Mr Trump’s line of a stolen presidential election. Their stance risks confusing Republican voters. If the system is corrupt, why bother voting? If it is not, then did Mr Trump in fact lose fair and square? It is a measure of Mr Trump’s grip on the party that both candidates are sticking loyally to a line that could jeopardise their chances. Yet the alternative — to disagree with Mr Trump and provoke his ire — would be fatal.
Whatever drama awaits Georgia next Tuesday, or in Congress next Wednesday, Mr Trump will have to leave office on January 20. But it is unlikely to be the day he retires from politics. Mar-a-Lago could become his would-be presidency in exile.