Steven Roberts 2020

Steven Roberts

Will Trumpism survive once Donald Trump leaves office?

We don't know yet. Too many critical variables remain unclear, including Trump's own predilections. Will he run again in 2024? Start his own broadcast network? Or will he play more golf and watch more TV while fending off the legal and financial assaults that will only accelerate once he returns to private life?

My best guess is that Trump is not going anywhere. He is simply too addicted to adulation, too consumed with grievance, too desperate for vindication to abandon the arena, especially after a defeat. This is a man who lives to win. He cannot bear to end his career as a loser.

"He is, without question, the most powerful voice in our party," said U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, no Trump fan, on NBC's Meet the Press. "He will have an enormous impact on our party going forward. I believe the great majority of people who voted for Donald Trump want to make sure his principles and policies are pursued. So, yes, he's not disappearing by any means. He's the 900-pound gorilla when it comes to the Republican Party."

Trump's former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney added, "I would absolutely ... put him on the short list of people who are likely to run in 2024."

There are large obstacles to those ambitions. Trump remains the least popular president of the modern era. His favorable rating during his four years in office never broke 50% and averaged 40%, according to 23 polls conducted by ABC and The Washington Post. He won about 47.5% of the popular vote this year — up from 46% in 2016, but still well short of a majority. And he was beaten by a weak opponent — Joe Biden, a 77-year-old two-time loser in presidential politics who failed to generate much excitement, even among his own supporters.

Then there is the nature of Trumpism. American politics is largely driven by personality, not policy, and Trump is an extreme example of that tendency. The Republicans didn't even bother to adopt a platform when they renominated him last summer because they knew their marketing brand was "Trump the Man," not "Trump the Plan."

As a set of ideas, Trumpism is woefully thin: Demonize immigrants, berate the media, and stoke racial and cultural hostility. It's Trump himself, his taunts and tirades, that define and embody Trumpism. How can it endure without him?

Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster, offered this take in The Washington Post: "Ronald Reagan was for freedom. Donald Trump was against the swamp. That's why Reaganism lasted from 1976 through 2016, and that's why I'm not convinced Trumpism will even survive until the next election. Things last longer if you're for something than if you're against something."

There is a strong counterargument, however. Trump defied predictions of disaster and won more than 71 million votes, up from 63 million in 2016. A shift of about 47,000 votes in three states — Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona — would have produced an Electoral College tie. Republicans ran well in down-ballot races with him heading the ticket.

The president's hardcore base remains fiercely loyal and eager to punish any heretic who strays from the gospel. "Trump ... rules by fear," former GOP senator Bill Cohen told The New York Times. "He can still inflame his supporters — there are 70 million of them out there. He still carries that fear factor."

That "fear factor" has been a palpable influence since the election, pressuring Republicans into issuing fawning — and often false — statements just to flatter a venomous president. "Trump won this election," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House GOP leader — a totally fanciful notion with no basis in fact. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a likely contender for the GOP nomination in four years, made an even more deranged and dangerous suggestion: that legislators in states like Pennsylvania should consider overturning the popular vote for Biden and appointing Trump-friendly electors.

The two Georgia senators who are running for reelection in a January runoff, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, accused the Republican secretary of state of conducting a rigged election and urged him to resign. The official, Brad Raffensperger, called the accusations "laughable," a label that could easily apply to all the other false charges launched by Trump toadies.

But few Republicans are laughing. The 900-pound gorilla in their ranks loves the camera and the spotlight. He is not ready for his show to be canceled.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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