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The troubling persistence of Trumpism

Julia Nikhinson

Donald J. Trump may have been defeated, but Trumpism survives. While the former president’s influence over social media has been diminishing, Trumpism continues to reign triumphant in the Republican Party.

That’s because former President Trump evokes such powerful support from Republican voters, not just Republican leaders. An IPSOS-Reuters poll this month asked, “Who do you think the true president is right now?” Republicans answered Donald Trump, 53 to 47 percent over Joe Biden. How’s that for denial of reality?

And how’s this for subversion of democracy? Only 26 percent of Republicans — compared with 66 percent of Democrats — “strongly agree” that “the loser in an election must concede defeat.” A conservative member of the House Freedom Caucus told the Washington Post that Republican Party leaders need to be “aligned with the people who elect us.” So, out with former House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wy.), who defiantly told her colleagues, “If you want leaders who will enable and spread [Trump’s] destructive lies, I’m not your person.”

Why are Republican voters still so strongly committed to Trump? Trump’s job approval averaged just 41 percent in the Gallup poll, the lowest on record since 1945. He is the only president since at least 1945 whose job approval never reached 50 percent.

Here’s one reason: While Trump lost his bid for re-election, 2020 was not a blowout for Republicans. Not like Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. Goldwater won 38.5 percent of the popular vote and 52 electoral votes in 1964. Trump won 47 percent of the popular vote and 232 electoral votes in 2020. Republicans lost 36 House seats in 1964. In 2020, Republicans gained 14 House seats. The number of state governments totally controlled by Republicans (governor and both houses of the state legislature) went from 21 before the 2020 election to 23 after the election.

There’s only one way Republicans can be persuaded to abandon Trumpism. Democrats have to whip them in elections, beat them so badly that Republicans reach the point where they say, “We can’t go on like this.” That’s not happening: 63 percent of Republicans endorse the view that Trump should run for president again in 2024.

Over 100 former Republican officials have signed a letter threatening to form a third party if the Republican Party does not break with Trump. They describe themselves as forming a “resistance of the rational” against the radicals.

What President Trump opened up, and what the Republican Party has embraced, is a huge education gap in American politics. In last year’s election, Trump’s support shifted from 48 percent among white voters with a college degree to 67 percent among white voters with no degree. (The two groups are roughly equal in size. Biden won by carrying voters of color by big margins.)

The reaction to Trump among many educated voters, like those from the traditional Republican establishment who signed the letter, is one of contempt. They accuse Trump and his followers of creating a cult of the irrational. The evidence? Their rejection of science, including climate change and medical science concerning the pandemic, as well as Trump’s blithe disregard of facts in promoting “the Big Lie” that the 2020 election was “stolen.” In a Monmouth University poll taken just after Biden took office in January, half of non-college whites but only a quarter of whites with a college degree believed that Biden won because of fraud.

A conflicting pattern prevails now in American politics: The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. But the better educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. Hence the big losses Republicans suffered last year among educated suburban voters all over the country.

Trump’s grievance-driven politics has a limited audience. Republicans with outlandish views are finding it difficult to use persuasion to reach voters. So, Trump supporters are trying to change the electorate and the electoral system. They are resorting to voter suppression, charges of voter fraud, threats to recall or replace uncooperative election officials and absurd audits of legally verified ballots like the one in Maricopa County, Ariz., that local officials claim is turning their state into “a laughingstock.”

“I understand why you wouldn’t trust this audit,” an Arizona activist said at a rally. “But can you understand why we don’t trust your election?” Your election!

President Trump didn’t create the political division of the country — it goes back more than 50 years — but he exploited it and made it worse. Can anything bring the country together? Usually what it takes is a crisis. Americans did pull together after 9/11. From September 2001 to September 2002, a majority of Democrats supported President George W. Bush. But the unity lasted only a year. It ended in September 2002 when the Bush administration announced the “rollout” of the war in Iraq.

Crises create opportunities for leaders. The pandemic was a crisis that could have united the country — but President Trump steadfastly refused to treat the pandemic as a crisis because it threatened his re-election. “I wanted to play it down,” the president explained about when the pandemic first broke. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” Trump handled the pandemic the way he handled every issue, as an opportunity to divide the country. It ended up becoming the issue that brought him down.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2020 election American democracy claims of 2020 election fraud Donald Trump education gap Joe Biden Liz Cheney Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States the big lie trumpism white voters

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