In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s second acquittal in an impeachment trial, his supporters celebrated confirmed dominance of the Republican party. But as they did so an influential voice warned: “Mr Trump may run again, but he won’t win another national election.”
The Wall Street Journal also said moves by Trump other than a run for the presidential nomination in 2024, including a “revenge campaign tour” or third-party run, would only “divide the centre-right and elect Democrats”.
No one so much as Democrats wishes for that analysis to be true: that if Trump insists on remaining a loud voice in US politics, he will succeed only in electing more Democrats.
But the fantasy of Trump’s summary departure from the national political stage is to be guarded against, many warn – and the notion that he cannot win the White House again in 2024 has been rejected on both the left and the right.
“Trump could win again because it is always a choice between two” candidates, tweeted the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, in reply to the Journal editorial.
Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, by 306-232 in the electoral college and by more than 7m votes nationwide. But Biden is the oldest president ever inaugurated and though he has said he may seek a second term, on election day 2024 he will be 81. Trump could yet face Vice-President Kamala Harris or another relatively untested Democrat.
About half of Republicans want Trump to stay head of their party. That said, half of American voters want him banished from politics altogether, according to a CNBC poll this month that echoed other surveys. There are a lot more Americans than there are Republicans. Furthermore, tens of thousands have left the party since the Capitol Hill attack on 6 January.
On Saturday, seven Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting to convict Trump on a charge of insurrection arising from the Capitol riot. The defections were significant, the most against a president of their own party in any impeachment, but the vote still fell 10 short of the two-thirds majority needed.
Many Republicans, most notably minority leader Mitch McConnell, excoriated Trump’s behaviour but said they voted to acquit because the trial was unconstitutional. Scholars dispute that, and the Senate voted twice to proceed.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a former governor of Massachusetts one of the most known quantities in politics, was among the Republicans to vote to convict. For that decision, he was attacked by Utah Republicans with a petition to censure him including the line, “Whereas, Senator Williard [sic] Mitt Romney appears to be an agent for the Establishment Deep State.”
The petition, which misspelled Romney’s first name, “Willard”, was reported by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. The “deep state” conspiracy theory holds that a permanent government of bureaucrats and intelligence agents thwarted Trump’s agenda. Steve Bannon, a key propagator and former Trump strategist, has said it is “for nut cases”.
Right now, for Trump 2024, the political math looks bad. But the factors on his side, including fundraising muscle and a rabidly devoted base, are plain to see. Trump raised more than $250m after the election on the back of his lie that it was stolen – and he has promised to stick around.
“We have so much work ahead of us,” he said following his acquittal on Saturday, “and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant, and limitless American future.”
State Republican parties back him. At least four senators who voted to convict were on the receiving end of sharp rebukes. Such skirmishes could be further signs of how Trump threatens to pull the party apart.
“It’s hard to imagine Republicans winning national elections without Trump supporters anytime soon,” the GOP strategist Alex Conant told Reuters. “The party is facing a real catch-22: it can’t win with Trump but it’s obvious it can’t win without him either.”
Even more troubling for those concerned for the strength of US democracy, the continuation of Trumpian politics by a younger conservative – Senator Josh Hawley or Fox News host Tucker Carlson, perhaps – could render moot the question of whether Trump himself is onstage. In this thinking, a candidate as indifferent to democracy but better at organizing his party could succeed in a power grab where Trump failed.
Monday’s editorial casting doubt on Trump’s prospects came from a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, a dominant voice on the right. It echoed moves by the New York Post, the Journal and Fox News last November, after an election Trump still refuses to concede.
On its news pages on Monday, under the headline Pro-Trump Candidates Launch Early Senate, Governor Bids, the Journal looked at early moves in key states including Ohio, Virginia and Arkansas, ahead of the 2022 midterms.
But on the opinion page, under the headline Trump’s Non-Vindication, the Journal’s editors added their voice to warnings from senior Republicans that Trump’s hold on the rank-and-file may not translate to another successful White House run – even though Democrats in Congress could not bar him from future office.
“For four years,” the editorial board claimed, “Mr Trump’s conduct stayed largely within constitutional bounds … but Mr Trump’s dishonest challenge to the 2020 election, even after multiple defeats in court, clearly broke those bounds and culminated in the 6 January riot.
“Mr Trump may run again, but he won’t win another national election. He lost re-election before the events of 6 January, and as president his job approval never rose above 50%.
“He may go on a revenge campaign tour, or run as a third-party candidate, but all he will accomplish is to divide the centre-right and elect Democrats. The GOP’s defeats in the two 5 January Georgia Senate races proved that.
“The country is moving past the Trump Presidency, and the GOP will remain in the wilderness until it does too.”