The past few months have been difficult for former president Donald Trump—after losing reelection in November, his cries of electoral fraud being repeatedly rejected by the courts, he was impeached a second time for inciting the Capitol riots, and numerous new investigations have been opened into his alleged conspiracy to commit voter fraud in Georgia as well. However, Trump’s most serious legal threat is posed by the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s investigation into the Trump Organization’s financial conduct, newly invigorated by a Supreme Court ruling allowing Vance access to obtain access to years of Trump’s records.
While Trump may have avoided legal repercussions so far, the slew of investigations may very well uncover criminal charges that stick. In particular, as Bloomberg editor Tim O’Brien explained in an interview with MSNBC, the broad scope of Vance’s investigation could potentially flip key Trump allies by threatening them with criminal liability. In the past few days, Vance’s investigation has already begun pressuring one of Trump’s closest financial aides and CFO of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, seeking to use any criminal wrongdoing as leverage to get him to betray his loyalty to Trump.
Weisselberg, who has reportedly handled almost all of Trump’s finances for the past two decades, could provide key testimony if Vance is successful in turning him. Weisselberg’s knowledge of Trump’s finances has previously placed former Trump fixer Michael Cohen in prison for tax evasion and campaign finance charges. In turn, such incriminating testimony could prove fatal to Trump’s political ambitions, as a criminal conviction would effectively nullify his chances at reelection, not least because of the lengthy court proceedings and potential prison sentence Trump would face.
Trump has so far evaded culpability for all of his alleged crimes, and if he once again avoids criminal charges, his nomination in 2024 seems certain. Even Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who briefly but harshly broke with Trump following the Capitol riots, continues to advocate support for a potential 2024 Trump nomination. However, if Vance’s investigation proves successful, Trump’s financial dealings may be what finally brings him down. It’s worth considering, therefore, what a Trump conviction would mean for the Republican party.
Republicans have plenty of reasons to exile Trump, including the recent donor revolt that saw major Republican corporate donors such as Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield and Commerce Bank suspend their contributions to Republican lawmakers who voted against the election results. Trump’s presidency has also alienated American suburban voters, a key mistake that may have cost Republicans the 2020 reelection.
On the other hand, many have also questioned whether Republicans can stand to lose Trump’s apparently firm grasp of the populist grassroots. Trump’s presidency helped propel far-right candidates such as the conspiracy-theory-embracing Georgia Representative Marjory Taylor Greene into office. The overwhelmingly positive audience response Trump received at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) last week demonstrates his continued popularity among Republican voters. Even Gallup polls conducted around the time of the Capitol riots showed Trump to have retained an 82% approval rate among Republicans.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that much of the party has risked losing the support of big businesses to ally themselves with Trump. Many have, in their attacks on anti-Trump Republicans, openly defied the attempts of Republican party leaders to mitigate intra-party conflict. Florida GOP Representative Matt Gaetz went so far as to campaign against Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and one of ten who voted to impeach Trump during the second impeachment hearing, in her home state. Though Trump no longer occupies any official political post, his name still carries with it significant political heft, and likely will continue to whether or not he is convicted. As a senior campaign advisor for Bush in 2000 and 2004 pointed out of Trump, “the big flag with his name on it, it’s not like you can replace that with a symbol of the party”.
Although the GOP retains a resilient bloc of anti-Trumpists—11 House Republicans joined Democrats in voting to strip Greene of her committee assignments—there seems no end in sight to the incessant political infighting among the Republican party, and a Trump conviction would certainly not help. Rather, change in the Republican party seems likely to come from the grassroots, as it did leading up to Trump’s 2016 victory: 45% of those polled at CPAC had some doubts about Trump being the next Republican nominee, and this number could grow in the next few years: the loyalty of Trump’s voter base is far more brittle than it may seem.
As studies have shown, most of Trump’s supporters do not base their allegiance on policy preferences, and indeed most voters fail even to grasp key partisan demographic divides. Instead, Trump supporters seem motivated by a combination of economic insecurity-induced resentment and subrational pressures from family, community, and tradition that contribute to a cult of personality. This persona is certainly powerful, having won Trump a term as president. However, any cult of personality requires constant tending-to that would be nearly impossible to maintain while serving out the conviction of a financial crime that, in any case, would place Trump squarely among the very establishment despised by his supporters.
While it may seem impossible for a party whose voter base is often characterized as conspiracy theorists and confederate flag-waving white supremacists, Republican voters may very well realize that though they liked Trump, his time has passed. The same factors that propelled Trump’s caustic populism to the presidency may make the move away from Trump, if it occurs, as rapid and sweeping as the growth of Trump’s early popularity.
Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan has the potential to revitalize the economies of the rural towns in which Trump enjoyed near-unwavering support, eroding the despair at being “left behind” that drives much of Trump’s populist base. Republicans could find a more stable alternative to carry on Trump’s anti-establishment legacy, including Maryland Governor and prominent anti-Trump Republican Larry Hogan. At the end of the day, Trump supporters may even decide that Trump’s four years of the presidency were, as this study by Berkeley researcher Adam Jadhav described, an adequately severe “hand grenade for the establishment”.
Of course, if convicted, Trump may try to spin it as another story of persecution by a corrupt establishment. Against all odds, Republicans may decide to nominate a convicted felon for President, or Trump may separate from the party entirely and decide to run on his own, an idea he has floated before. The American Constitution, after all, does not prevent felons from running for President.
Yet this time, such a narrative would likely not play so well into the anti-establishment resentment of his supporters, further driving the flight of Republicans away from Trump. Republicans of all factions, as much as some may enjoy Trump’s disruption of a system that they believe does not work for them, are growing tired of Trump’s instability. As Jadhav observed of Trump supporters, “it seems fair to say most people are getting on with their lives.”
A criminal conviction, if Vance’s investigation or any of the other criminal probes into Trump’s conduct succeeds, may not prove fatal to Trump’s political influence. However, Trump would most likely be relegated to a brand used by Republicans to catapult their nominees into office. “In an ideal universe,” one Republican strategist noted, “we keep a lot of the good things from Trump and we move on and we refine that and make that better.”
Republican politicians will likely not find it prudent to distance themselves from Trump anytime soon, even if Trump is criminally charged. Yet Trump’s name will at most be used for political theatrics, which will become increasingly disjoint from any real policy preferences. The Republican voter base is already exhausted by Trump’s unstable persona and policies, and if convicted Trump may find himself at best the mere figurehead of a more traditional brand of conservatism.