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Larry Donnelly: 'Is Trump done with politics? This is not the rhetoric of a man inclined to step away'

Trumpism within the Republican party could be here to stay – with or without the man himself – according to columnist Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

I have to revisit the most frequently asked question in American politics currently.

What will Donald Trump do next?

In the aftermath of Joe Biden’s inauguration, there were rumours that Trump, who spent several days playing golf at his Mar-a-Lago resort and kept out of sight, was “done” with politics.

A statement released this week, dedicated in the main to skewering Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, tells a divergent tale.

Among other caustic attacks, it asserts that “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”
Politico.com reports that an earlier draft also included the gratuitously nasty line that McConnell has “too many chins and not enough smarts.”

This is not the rhetoric of a man inclined to step away.

It was evidently McConnell’s speech on the Senate floor in which he said that the ex- president was “practically and morally responsible” for the events of 6 January on Capitol Hill, as he simultaneously defended his vote for acquittal on the ground that the trial was unconstitutional, that provoked Trump’s ire.

McConnell reiterated his view in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Trump seems to have been buoyed by the fact that 43 of 50 Republicans stood by him – notwithstanding the compelling case made against him by the House managers and his own defence team’s positively dire rebuttal – at the close of the impeachment trial.

He and his inner circle recognise that these senators were not motivated by personal loyalty, but by their perception of how popular the controversial billionaire remains with the grassroots.

In light of all that has transpired since the election, this was an extremely welcome signal.

Permanent campaign mode

For his part, McConnell is studiously ignoring Trump and desperately wants to move on from him.

The 78 year old from Kentucky plans to unite Senate Republicans around the theme that the Biden administration is too liberal for the country, with specific reference to the multiple executive orders the new president issued on matters such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline and abortion, which are top priorities for the left.

Meanwhile, other conservative and centre right Republicans have been meeting to discuss the way forward. At a 5 February gathering, they were split over whether to form an identifiable faction within the GOP or to establish a new party altogether.

Given that the political history of the United States is littered with the corpses of high-minded third parties, the latter would be a herculean task and, hence, a less likely scenario. And although the media will supply them with plenty of oxygen, recent elections indicate that their brand of orthodox American conservatism is a spent force.

This internecine squabbling will come to the fore as the 2022 mid-term elections approach. As an aside, it is no exaggeration to say that America is in permanent campaign mode. At any rate, before the two parties face off that November, there will be primaries.

In the US Senate, only one Republican who voted to convict Trump, the moderate Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, is up for re-election.

She will certainly face a Trump-backed opponent – Sarah Palin’s name has been floated; I’ll believe that when I see it – for the nomination. In Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the incumbent Republican is not standing again.

In all of those, I would now give the advantage to the candidate most closely aligned with Donald Trump, the man, and his message.

Tellingly, mere hours after the retiring North Carolinian Richard Burr voted to convict at the end of the trial, one of his would be successors tweeted: “Wrong vote, Senator Burr. I am running to replace Richard Burr because North Carolina needs a true conservative champion as their next senator.”

Former congressman Mark Walker’s advisers are fairly confident as to which way the wind is blowing. At present, I think they’re correct.

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Trumpism without Trump

Here’s the thing, however. There is no one deader than yesterday’s politician, especially one who has been defeated. Memories fade. Time passes by. Fresh faces capture imaginations. And it will be harder still for Trump to hold sway when he has been denied access to new and old media platforms, which he was so dependent upon and used so effectively.

My guess is that Trump has a limited time in which he, as an individual, will wield significant power and influence. Further, I suspect that the manner in which he opts to do so will help determine for just how long he can be a serious player.

But here’s another thing. Even those congressional and presidential candidates who deliberately draw clear blue water between themselves and Trump will sound more like him than Mitt Romney – if they really want to be their party’s standard bearers, that is.

It is worth repeating: Trump’s redefining of conservatism has paid political dividends for his party. This is a fact. That many on the left deny it so vociferously only reflects their refusal to get to grips with what are some uncomfortable truths for them. Like it or not, Trump’s impact has been enormous and appears destined to be enduring.

Most Republican aspirants for political office, outside the blue states, would actually be best counselled to steer away from any jousting between Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump and reserve their criticism for the aforementioned traditional conservatives conspiring to leave or to divide the party.

A tacit acknowledgement that each of the two newly sworn enemies is right in his own way without kissing either’s ring is probably the shrewdest strategy for up and comers. Trumpism without Trump is a fitting moniker to attach to it.

All of this conjecture is by way of trying to explain what we might expect from Donald Trump in the months ahead and what could flow from there. Despite my incessant pondering, I can’t offer a fully coherent answer.

What is abundantly clear is that his four years in the White House have made assessing the future arc of American politics a lot trickier. And I haven’t touched on the Democrats. They’re a different, yet no less complicated, kettle of fish.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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