Are Republicans really ready to unhitch their wagon from Donald Trump?

Analysis: The attack on the Capitol – and perhaps the Senate losses in Georgia – have prompted some GOP leaders to signal a split even as others back his election lie

Republican lawmakers celebrate the passage of their tax bill at the White House with Donald Trump and Mike Pence on 20 December 2017.
Republican lawmakers celebrate the passage of their tax bill at the White House with Donald Trump and Mike Pence on 20 December 2017. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Republican lawmakers celebrate the passage of their tax bill at the White House with Donald Trump and Mike Pence on 20 December 2017. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Last modified on Wed 13 Jan 2021 23.36 EST

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Has the spell really been broken? After years of joining Donald Trump in demonizing political opponents, and holding their silence as Trump furiously shredded public trust in elections, public service, the rule of law and the truth itself, have mainstream Republicans really decided to give him up?

Were the deaths of a police officer and four others at the US Capitol last week in a riot incited by Trump the final outrage? Or did the recent loss of two huge elections in Georgia – elections they expected to win – focus their minds?

Perhaps the impressive list of US corporations that have suspended political donations until Washington returns to sanity have been persuasive? Or the new polls showing that 74% of Americans strongly disapprove of the riot at the Capitol?

The questions arise from reports on Wednesday, initially in the New York Times, that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, privately supports the second impeachment of Trump. McConnell, whose iron grip on the Senate was torn from him suddenly by those Georgia losses, sees an urgent need for the party to purge Trump in the name of its own survival, multiple outlets reported.

“McConnell turns on Trump” is a headline that by itself signals that the Republican zeppelin is already on fire – even if it has yet to come apart in the sky.

But there are many other signals of important Republican defections from Trump. The third-ranking Republican in the House, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of the former vice-president Dick Cheney and no closet liberal, said on Tuesday that she would vote in favor of an impeachment article charging Trump with incitement of insurrection.

“There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the constitution,” Cheney said.

William Barr, the former attorney general and Trump apparatchik, voiced the same charge last week, accusing Trump of “betrayal of his office”.

More than 100 Republican party officials and sympathizers have signed a letter calling for Trump’s immediate resignation, the conservative political strategist Mike Murphy said on his podcast.

“We’re going to have a civil war now,” Murphy said, referring to the party. “The war is coming.”

Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist who left the party because of Trump, echoed that assessment.

“We’re at the moment now where we’re seeing a fracturing, a breaking, because of the unprecedented situation – the sedition, the violence, the death,” Schmidt told the Associated Press.

But observers who have watched for four years as Republicans happily harvested votes and amassed political victories under Trump – while fiercely defending the president against any whisper of criticism as Trump coerced election tampering from abroad and stoked racist hatred at home – might wonder how it is that the basic political dynamics have suddenly changed, if indeed they have.

One simple explanation might follow the money. Republicans were already facing a campaign finance crunch with the death this week of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a fervent Zionist whose estimated $480m in lifetime giving to Republican causes was bookended by the takeover of the US Capitol, one week before his death, by Trump supporters in “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirts.

Donor Ken Langone: ‘I feel betrayed.’
Donor Ken Langone: ‘I feel betrayed.’ Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Another Republican megadonor and erstwhile Trump backer, Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, expressed revulsion on Wednesday at the Capitol attack.

“I feel betrayed. OK?” Langone said on CNBC. “Last Wednesday, if it doesn’t break every American’s heart, something’s wrong. I didn’t sign up for that.”

Top US corporations have also signaled their displeasure. A list of dozens of giant companies – from American Express to Amazon, from Goldman Sachs to Bank of America to Blackrock, Google, Facebook, Marriott and Walmart – have suspended political donations in protest of the turbulence Trump has wrought, which is not taken to have been good for business.

Similarly, Trump’s lack of interest in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, which has cost upwards of 380,000 American lives, has left most of the US economy idle and fueled unemployment as countries elsewhere have gone back to work with fewer lost lives –and no culture war over facial masking.

The explanation for the Republican break from Trump may come down to raw politics. As of November, Trump is a loser, who might have won re-election if only he had not alienated suburban Republican moderates in places like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Omaha.

Trump’s future utility on the stump, in helping Republicans recover control of Congress in 2022 or the presidency in 2024, is questionable. In any case he might be deemed too unpredictable to build a long-term party strategy around.

Republicans might have noticed that Trump’s base of voters only shows up to vote for him, and not down-ballot or off-year Republican candidates.

Or Trump’s political utility might be deemed to have been used up, the politician an empty husk. In this analysis, Republicans have already gotten everything out of Trump they wanted, and the returns at the margin look to be extremely diminishing.

Donald Trump’s rally in Georgia on 4 January did little for Kelly Loeffler, who lost her Senate runoff election.
Donald Trump’s rally in Georgia on 4 January did little for Kelly Loeffler, who lost her Senate runoff election. Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

Trump stood and smiled next to three supreme court nominees selected by outside conservative groups, and Trump nominated, for hundreds of federal judgeships, whoever conservatives told him to. Trump was foolish enough in his own egotism to believe that the makeover of the US judiciary was something he had done. Similarly, he bragged about the tax cut bill of 2017, thinking it was something he had negotiated.

More recently, Trump has been getting in the way of McConnell’s business, and demonstrating his own impotence where Congress is concerned.

In a pathetic attempt to bend the Senate leader last month, Trump vowed not to sign a Covid relief bill, demanding larger individual payouts. McConnell did not blink, and Trump backed down. Likewise, Trump’s veto of a defense spending measure was unceremoniously overridden by both houses of Congress.

But a Republican break with Trump is hardly complete. Trump retains huge support among the Republican rank-and-file of elected officials, among state legislators and among Republican base voters. Even after blood was spilled in the Capitol over the election lie, 137 Republicans in the House still voted in favor of that lie. Many Republicans vehemently opposed Trump’s second impeachment.

Dave Wasserman, the Congress editor at the Cook Political Report, noted that in the 16 hours after Cheney announced she would vote to impeach Trump, only five Republicans had publicly said they would follow her lead.

“I’d be surprised if there are a dozen, ultimately,” Wasserman tweeted. “The GOP reality: anti-Trumpism still faces a greater risk of purge than Trumpism.”

But secret and not-so-secret motivations remain. At least some of the senators who will vote on whether to convict Trump in his second impeachment are eager to run for president themselves in 2024 – a job made a lot easier without Trump on the field.

If, that is, he really is on his way off.