Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
America’s political system is famously divided between two parties. In the land of the free, anything is possible – besides a successful third party run at the presidency.
Owing to successive decisions taken by the Supreme Court protecting political donations as a form of free speech, the wealthiest Americans have become primus inter pares when it comes to political influence. The rise and rise of Super-PACs as vehicles for donations has meant that the bigger one’s wallet, the greater the sway.
But donors don’t often become great candidates. The business world is full of tycoons with vast wealth and equally sizeable political ambition, but few take the plunge into electoral politics.
The standout name when it comes to putting a chink in the armour of the two-party system is Ross Perot, the billionaire who ran as independent candidate for president in 1992 and 1996. Owing to the structure of the electoral system, which simply does not reward candidates outside the binary structure of Republican or Democrat, he won zero Electoral College votes.
What if the objective is not to win Electoral College votes, but to disrupt the system?
In seeking to answer that question, we begin to contemplate what Donald Trump might do next. He has in his hands immense power over the future of the Republican Party. It is abundantly clear that a tectonic shift is emerging – a San Andreas fault line running through the GOP. For four years with Trump in the White House, the vast majority of the Republican establishment – donors, Congressmen and Senators – have tolerated the President’s excesses.
For, as Lindsey Graham put it, “he has been a consequential president”. Rebuffing China. Putting three Conservative judges on the Supreme Court. Appointing almost a third of all active federal judges on the US appeals courts. Ensuring massive tax cuts.
Elected Republicans saw Trump as a winner, and therefore as central to their own career prospects. Taking a firm line against the leader is a bold strategy when he has polled at an average of 86.5 per cent amongst registered Republicans throughout his presidency.
What will the Republicans do about Trump now that he is no winner?
The party needs to think fast. The US electoral cycle, unforgiving in its perpetuity, kicks in again on 8 November next year, when all 35 seats in the United States House of Representatives, 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and 39 state and territorial gubernatorial elections will be contested.
Will Republicans break free from the shackles of the President, whose polling numbers with the American public have fallen off a cliff since last week’s events?
A new Morning Consult poll now puts Trump’s approval at just 34 per cent, the nadir in his presidency. Approximately 20 per cent of Republicans say they are “less motivated” to vote in future elections based on the outcome of the 2020 election.
It turns out that encouraging domestic violence and a literal attack on the nation’s home of democracy in its capital city isn’t good politics, and so the break has already started. Three cabinet secretaries have resigned.
Previous loyalists like Chris Christie, Graham, and Mick Mulvaney, a former White House Chief of Staff, have turned their backs on Trump. The GOP establishment, which had learned to tolerate him and then sought to ride his coat tails to victory, are washing their hands of him now that the political cost is lower, given that he will imminently leave office.
Could the same be said if last week’s events had somehow happened when he was in the middle of his Presidency? A handful of Trump’s supporters in Congress have remained steadfast in their support, namely the likes of Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and, in the House, representatives Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan. Their naked political calculation is that their electoral prospects are better served with the President’s blessing and the support of his base.
Trump could well try to retain his power base in the heart of the Republican grass roots. He has exploited a fissure between his most passionate, diehard followers and the larger chunk of the Republican Party, which looked on in horror at last week’s insurgency and has decided to draw a line.
Without a Shadow Cabinet structure, and therefore an immediate successor, there is no leader to replace Trump at the top of the party when he leaves office next week. Instead, Mitch McConnell will become the most senior Republican in the country.
Before his Twitter account was suspended, Trump had pledged open warfare on McConnell. The Kentucky Senator has become a master of political chicanery, doing whatever it takes to preserve his party’s grip on power. If he wants to retain a united Republican Party, he will need Trump on side. Those prospects seem bleak.
Will Mr Trump become a Ross Perot?
Mike Bloomberg, the former New York Mayor, decided not to run for President in 2016 because he said he would take votes from Hillary Clinton and hand the White House to Trump.
In 1992, Perot played spoiler and, whilst he took votes from both sides, arguably cost George HW Bush his re-election, gifting the White House to Bill Clinton.
If the Republican Party moves on from the Trump-era institutionally, he will have to run in 2024 as an independent. His base is so loyal that they were willing to storm the Capitol, and so there is no doubt that they will follow him.
Running as independent but dragging the Trump wing of the Republican Party with him would take votes away from the Republican nominee, possibly handing the presidency to Kamala Harris. Unlike Perot, an independent Trump would only take votes from the right – his impact will be limited in the centre and non-existent on the left.
Today, Democrats will embark on the fourth impeachment in American history, with half of them aimed at removing Trump from office. Liz Cheney, the House’s Republican Conference Chair, has announced she would vote to impeach Trump, and it is expected that more will join her.
So far, at least three Republican Senators have publicly indicated their willingness to convict the president this time around, while Mitt Romney voted to support the impeachment proceedings in 2019. If every Democratic Senator votes to convict Trump in a trial, 17 Republicans would be needed for the two thirds majority required to convict him.
Seventeen seems a high bar. There probably will be insufficient support in the Senate to proceed with impeachment, but for the entire Republican Party it will do one important thing – mark the cards of existing Congressmen and Senators with the answer to a binary question: ‘Were you for or against Trump when it mattered?’ That will become the major division in the Republican Party for years to come.