Steven V. Roberts: The choice facing Republicans

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 19, 2021

Legally, Donald Trump was acquitted by the U.S. Senate. But politically, he has been found guilty by the American public. And the clash between those two judgments is creating a jagged split right down the middle of the Republican Party.

As Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a leading GOP moderate, told “Meet the Press” this week: “A real battle for the soul of the Republican Party” is looming “over the next couple of years.”

There’s no question that Republicans would be better off if they could get past Trump and Trumpism. In the latest ABC/Ipsos poll, 58% of respondents wanted him convicted, including 14% of Republicans. And 55% told the Quinnipiac survey that Trump should be barred from holding office in the future.

The numbers are stunningly consistent. Fifty-seven senators, including seven Republicans, voted for conviction. According to, Trump’s average favorable rating stands at 38%, while his unfavorable rating is 57.8%.

The New York Times reports that in January, about 140,000 voters quit the Republican Party in 25 states. Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida, says those numbers reflect “a larger undercurrent that’s happening” nationwide. He added that “this is probably the tip of the iceberg.”

One important signal of that larger undercurrent came from Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, who harbors presidential ambitions. In an interview with Politico, she sharply condemned Trump: “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

Trump’s political future is deservedly dismal, Haley added: “I think he’s lost any sort of political viability he was going to have. I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture. I don’t think he can. He’s fallen so far.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a harsh Trump critic, told The Washington Post that if impeachment had been conducted by secret ballot, there would have been “a ton” of Republican senators voting to convict Trump. Asked why so many lawmakers failed to vote their true feelings, Kinzinger replied frankly: “Political pressure. It’s fear of Donald Trump.”

That’s the problem facing the Republicans: Nationally, Trump’s a loser. But he maintains a solid grip over the party rank-and-file, and when it comes to primary contests, he can still wield influence. In fact, that’s already happening.

Several of the seven Republican defectors have been censured by their state parties. And Trump supporters like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are not backing down. “The most potent force in the Republican Party is President Trump,” he told Fox News. “We need Trump.”

Many Republicans still believe that. A recent survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that 79% of Republicans view Trump favorably, and many share his core beliefs. Two-thirds of Republicans agreed with Trump’s disproven belief that the election was riddled with fraud; 56% “support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life”; and nearly 3 in 10 sympathize with the QAnon conspiracy theory that insists Trump was fighting a global child sex trafficking ring.

“It’s pretty shocking,” Daniel Cox, the survey’s director, told Ron Brownstein of CNN. “When you look at those kinds of statements, and realize how extreme they are, it is absolutely concerning that they find a significant amount of support (among Republicans).”

Brownstein also quotes Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute: “Trump, and Trumpism, is now a runaway train that is not going to be easily derailed within the Republican Party.”

Still, the reality-based wing of the party is trying to do just that. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who refused to convict Trump of impeachable crimes on a legal technicality, rendered a devastating political verdict excoriating the former president.

Trump was guilty of a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” by encouraging the rioters who sacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, said McConnell. He added: “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

Nor is there any question that Nikki Haley is right in saying that Trump has lost all of his “political viability.”

But if the Republican Party refuses to admit that, if they remain in the grip of Trump and Trumpism, they will get what they deserve: defeat and disgrace.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at