Loyalty to Trump remains the fault line for Republicans

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, leaves the chamber Saturday after the Senate voted not guilty in the impeachment trial of former President Trump.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The Senate vote to acquit former President Trump in his second impeachment trial vividly illustrated the fault line that runs through his adopted party: Even as the majority of Republicans stayed loyal, a sizable minority made clear their desire to be rid of him.

One-seventh of the Republican caucus voted against Trump — fewer than half the number that would have been needed to convict, but a larger share of a president’s party defecting than in any prior impeachment. And several of those who voted with Trump, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, nonetheless denounced him in harsh terms.

On the other side, Republican activists moved within hours of the vote to denounce senators who had voted against Trump.


In North Carolina, Michael Whatley, the chair of the state Republican Party, called Sen. Richard Burr’s vote in favor of conviction “shocking and disappointing.” Louisiana Republicans voted to censure Sen. Bill Cassidy.

The rhetorical volleys marked the latest skirmish in a war that’s likely to continue to divide Republicans for months, if not years, as a party that has largely defined itself by loyalty to one man tries to determine its identity now that he’s no longer in office.

The pent-up distaste for Trump on one side of the party’s divide could be seen in the speech that McConnell gave just after the roll call.

The Republican leader, who all-but guaranteed the acquittal by not allowing the Senate to hold a trial before Trump left office, endorsed virtually the entire case the House impeachment managers had made.

Trump, he said, was guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” in the way he provoked the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and in his failure to stop it once the violence began.

“There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” he said.


Others echoed McConnell’s remarks. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), like McConnell, said she voted to acquit Trump on the procedural grounds that the Constitution does not allow the Senate to try someone who no longer holds office. But in a statement after the vote, she called the former president’s actions “disgraceful.”

Democrats scoffed at statements that weren’t backed up by votes. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Republicans who voted to acquit Trump “cowardly.” But for Republicans, even rhetorical blasts at Trump carry considerable risk.

Although Trump has lost some ground with Republicans, he remains popular with the vast majority of them. Nearly 8 in 10 adults who identify as Republicans have a favorable view of Trump, according to a recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute.

That doesn’t mean they’re all intense Trump fans, but a big group are: Just over one-third reported feeling “very favorable” toward him, and 37% said their loyalties lie primarily with Trump, not with the party.

And though it’s true that the Republican Party itself has shrunk a bit in the last few months, that trend can easily be exaggerated.

Many states, for example, have reported tens of thousands of people switching their registrations from the GOP since the election. But that’s a tiny fraction of the 74 million votes Trump won in November.


The latest numbers from Gallup, which has tracked party identification for decades, find that 24% of Americans identify as Republican (another large group identifies as independent but reliably votes Republican), and 37% have a favorable view of the party. In both cases, that’s down seven points since just before the election and puts the GOP at a significant disadvantage relative to the Democrats, but neither reading is an all-time low.

So while the turbulent final months of the Trump administration hurt the GOP, Republican elected officials can reasonably hope their party will recover the way it did after a previous low point in 2009. Many of them believe that recovery depends on keeping the loyalty of voters who express loyalty to Trump.

It’s also true that while no national Republican figures have defended the violent insurrection at the Capitol, a significant slice of Republican voters express a widely held sense of victimization that in a significant number of cases is accompanied by a tolerance for political violence.

The American Enterprise Institute survey found that nearly 8 in 10 Republicans said they believed the political system is stacked against people who hold traditional values, and 55% said they agreed that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans said they believed the 2020 election had been marked by “widespread fraud,” with 37% calling that statement “completely accurate.”

A large minority of Republicans, 39%, said they completely or somewhat believed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.” Among Democrats, 17% took that view, and among independents, 31% did.


One in 8 Republicans said they “completely” agreed that violence may be required if elected officials didn’t protect the country.

That view is especially widespread among a group that has become the foundation of the current Republican coalition, white evangelical Christians. Among that group, 41% said they completely or somewhat believed that violence may be required.

None of that means that a huge group of Republican voters is ready to storm the Capitol — expressing sympathy with an idea on a poll isn’t the same as taking action.

But it does highlight the fact that the radicalization that has driven a sizable share of the Republican Party to the right during the last 12 years has been a bottom-up phenomenon.

Republican elected officials, especially Trump, and right-wing media have spread conspiracy theories and some have helped normalize violence, but those developments have been demand-driven: Trump didn’t create the set of beliefs and attitudes now widely referred to as Trumpism, but he sensed their presence in the Republican electorate and positioned himself to capitalize.

The problem that Republicans continue to grapple with is that those same attitudes have driven away voters whose support they need, especially in swing states and competitive congressional districts. The loss of two Senate seats in Georgia’s runoff elections early last month, which reduced McConnell to his new role as minority leader, came about in part because of politically moderate voters turning against the GOP in suburban areas of the state.


Like most political figures most of the time, Senate Republicans want to avoid political risk. The impeachment case, however, highlighted how inescapable the risks have become for them, regardless of which way they turn.

House impeachment managers, as they presented their case over the last several days, tried to highlight the risk of not acting, as the lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), did on Thursday.

“Is there any political leader in this room who believes that if he is ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” Raskin asked.

“Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”

Unwilling to face down their Trump-backing constituents, the majority of Republican senators signaled by their votes that Raskin’s bet is one they were willing to take. But the outcome left them no closer to healing a divide that continues to threaten their party.