Republicans’ Trump Dilemma

Without his Twitter account, former President Donald Trump has lost his preferred method of communication with the public, and his favorite anger-management tool. His allies in the Republican Party, however, may have just lost a major liability.

Republicans have begun to put the Senate impeachment trial itself on trial, striding past the question of whether Trump committed impeachable offenses when he incited a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. On the talk shows on Sunday, a number of Republican senators said they thought it would be moot — and maybe unconstitutional — to impeach a president after he left office.

Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota called impeachment a “moot point” on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Because I think right now Donald Trump is no longer the president,” he said. “He is a former president.”

A major asset to the forget-about-it defense has been the silent serenity of Trump himself, who has hardly been heard from since retreating to Florida last week. He left office with the reliable support of roughly eight in 10 Republicans nationwide, and in the days since then he has begun to recede, with a startling quietude, into figurehead status.

The party is racked by internal divisions and soul-searching — all of which is now being funneled into the question of whether to convict Trump in the Senate and leave him for dead, or acquit him and leave the door open for him to re-enter the political fray. But it’s happening in the opposite context from the events that got him impeached: Trump is no longer president, and he’s no longer on Twitter.

Even most of Trump’s supporters consistently said in polls that they wished he would set fires on Twitter less often. And it is his public statements — including those he made on the social media platform — that prompted this impeachment in the first place. “When I did polls and focus groups with Trump voters, they would say time and time again: They wished he would stop tweeting so much,” said Glen Bolger, a longtime Republican pollster.

“There is certainly something to be said for a little bit of a pressure valve loosened, if he’s not tweeting stupid things every day,” Bolger said of Republican senators who are deciding how to vote on impeachment. “I think the bigger factor that they’ll be thinking about is, what are the implications in terms of me being primaried by someone?”

Trump’s effect on the shape of the Republican base has been powerful; the question now is whether it will be long-lasting.

By the end of his term, Trump had hit record-low approval, including a significant dent in popularity among Republican voters. But he still commands support from a wide majority of the G.O.P. And the bloc of voters identifying as Republicans has significantly shifted to accommodate him: toward white people without college degrees, and away from the affluent white suburbanites who were crucial to the party for so long.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday, Senator Mitt Romney became the first Republican in the chamber to publicly say he approved of the House’s decision to impeach Trump, and also batted down President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion economic recovery package. In a way, this was another rejection of Trumpism.

Trump left office this month pushing for $2,000 stimulus checks, which still haven’t been passed. Part of his legacy will be defining a kind of populist Republicanism that sought to project a willingness to stand up for working people.

His weaponization of racial anxiety is another part of his legacy: On his way out of office, Trump’s 1776 Commission released a report that amounted to a wholesale reframing of the nation’s history, minimizing the role of slavery and calling for a “patriotic education” for schoolchildren.

As the G.O.P. gets into formation against a coming wave of proposals from Biden’s White House, its leaders will be defining their relationship to Trump’s legacy on multiple fronts. Vote to impeach, and risk showing disloyalty to the figurehead. Waver in support for his ethnonationalist politics, and stand accused of participating in “cancel culture.”

But vote to oppose aid to families that Trump called for, and risk sinking back into Romneyite Republicanism circa 2012 — a gambit that simply may not be feasible for the party anymore.

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