On the sun-drenched tarmac of Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., the outgoing president prepared to board Air Force One for the last time.
But first, he had a message for the supporters who’d listened to his months of falsehoods about the legitimacy of his successor.
“We love you. We will be back in some form,” Donald Trump said, giving hope to some Republicans, perhaps angst among others, that he may run again to be the nation’s chief executive.
He left a Republican Party in disarray following a highly chaotic post-election period that saw his lawyers launch myriad legal maneuvers, all unsuccessful, to reverse Biden’s victory, and his own attempts to pressure GOP leaders in key states and, near the end, even his own vice president.
Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president just hours after Trump departed for Mar-A Lago, his Palm Beach resort, as the only president in history to be impeached twice, albeit by a House of Representatives commanded by his political opposition.
Though he’s no longer in the White House, the fate of the fractured Grand Old Party is inextricably linked to the former president through the mass of voters who turned out in droves to support his bid for a second term. And those voters believe the steady diet of lies about election fraud that Trump and his allies spent two months repeating. The result: as many as 75 percent of GOP voters wrongly believe massive fraud gave Biden his win, according to numerous opinion surveys conducted in the months since the election.
Now, these voters find themselves torn between Republican politicians who’ve tied their reputations to claims of a rigged system and establishment GOP leaders trying to regroup in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
Many of them “are not going back to the mainstream,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University and author of “Super Mad at Everything All the Time: Political Media and Our National Anger.”
“The Republican Party is splintering,” Dagnes said in an interview. “Those who opposed Trump (like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican House leader who broke ranks last week and voted to impeach Trump) will likely face primary challenges, with the big split being between the Trumpy wing of the GOP and the non-Trumpy wing.”
A new kind of party
Over the last five years, Trump made himself the binding agent for the party. Politicians’ careers depended less on fealty to the party’s platform than to the party’s leader, whose hold over Republican voters, though diminish ed, remains.
“They’re going to be in shambles a little bit — I hate to say it — because there’s going to be a lot of Republicans who are still going to be supporting Trump after he leaves office and don’t want anything to do with the Republican Party,” Chris DelVecchio, a state GOP committeeman from York County, said before Biden’s swearing-in Wednesday.
A generational shift in the Republican Party, which began during the Tea Party movement of the early 2010s and accelerated under Trump, is pitting old-guard GOP leaders against a populist wing drawn to younger firebrands such as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, DelVecchio said.
“The Republican Party is becoming the party of the people and the Democrats are becoming what the Republicans were: the establishment, the elite,” DelVecchio said.
Trump’s loss removed the populist wing’s central figure from power. The establishment leaders who remain — among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — are viewed with deep suspicion by people like DelVecchio.
“There’s one thing I can’t stand, and it’s establishment hacks who’ve been there forever,” DelVecchio said.
Who should replace Trump as the party’s central figure divides GOP voters.
On one extreme are those like Greg Blymire, 44, of York County. Asked early last week whether he’d support Trump or someone else in 2024, Blymire suggested it’s a moot point. Trump “is going to be president in 2021,” he said. How that would work, according to Blymire, isn’t clear.
“One thing I know is the truth always prevails,” Blymire said. “I believe in the coming weeks, the truth will be brought to light.”
To Trump, again?
Trump left office Wednesday as a historically unpopular leader, a rejection driven by everything from his stoking of the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 to his administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. Having never won the popular vote, Trump is the only president in the history of Gallup polling to never reach 50-percent job approval, and he left office after his second impeachment with just one-third of the country still behind him, according to several polls.
“I hope he doesn’t run again” in 2024, said Kristine Eng, chair of the Centre County Republican Party, speaking for herself, not the party. Still, she remains supportive of him. “I don’t think Trump is done .... fighting for America.”
The coalition of voters Trump assembled under his banner ranges from people like Eng, who does not call the election “stolen” but believes there were major irregularities and suspected fraud, to Blymire, who claimed to have seen “definitive proof that shows Biden illegally and fraudulently won the election.”
Republican officials are placing different bets on which end of that spectrum offers them the best path back to power. McConnell on Tuesday blamed Trump for provoking the attack on the Capitol and said the mob was “fed lies” about election fraud. State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a potential candidate for governor in two years who spent months amplifying those lies, continues to appeal to those who believe the election was stolen, reposting on his Facebook page Wednesday morning a far-right conspiracy theorist who said the lack of crowds at Biden’s inauguration was “perfect for a fake candidate who had no public support.”
DelVecchio is somewhere in between. He never bought into the “tinfoil-hat” theories that Trump would remain in office. Nor does he think Biden was legitimately elected.
“You’re just not going to convince me — when poll watchers were not allowed in to watch, when everything was shut down and ballots ... were pulled out from under a desk in a suitcase,” DelVecchio said, echoing some of the falsehoods spread by Trump and his supporters after Biden’s win.
Even as election workers, judges and the media debunked nearly every fraud allegation lodged by Trump, the sheer volume of allegations created a thicket of innuendo that, by its size, is evidence enough for many that the election was stolen.
The institutions Americans once relied upon to get to the truth — news media and the government itself, to name two — spent the last four years as the target of relentless attacks by Trump, who helped convince his supporters that they couldn’t be trusted. Biden, in his inaugural address, referred to it as “an attack on democracy and truth.”
In their place, a partisan media ecosystem has arisen to capitalize on the discord by telling ideologues what they want to hear, rather than challenging them with inconvenient facts.
“The American political system has always been ideologically divided, but now the political media are divided as well, with both sides pointing at the other saying, ‘Can you believe what those people are saying?’” Dagnes wrote in her 2019 book. “There are now two very different news narratives informing the public. Both narratives expose and feed our anger.”
Trump’s role post-presidency — which could include another run for office, starting a media company or even founding his own party — could determine whether Republican politicians can count on his supporters to turn out in future elections, said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.
So, too, will the actions of Biden and the Democratic majorities in Congress. In their first midterm elections, the last two Democratic presidents (Clinton and Obama) saw the loss of Democratic majorities in the House, with Clinton losing the Senate as well.
Voters’ rejection of legislative and policy overreach by Biden and his allies could unite Republican factions and bring back to the fold moderates who had been turned off by Trump, said Allegheny County Republican Chairman Sam DeMarco.
But just days after the end of one of the most tumultuous political eras in American history, how the dust kicked up by Trump will settle is impossible to predict. And for many Republicans, the dust was the attraction, the result of a president committed to razing the old ways of Washington.
“He took a sledge hammer to open things up,” Eng said, referring to Trump’s style of provoking change.