How is Donald Trump, six months out of office, able to wield so much influence within the Republican Party? A man who was solidly defeated for re-election; who was unpopular throughout his four years in office and ended those years at a low point; who subsequently, in his second impeachment trial, was condemned by numerous senators from his own party; and who, among other things, constantly serves up positions impossible for party politicians to defend. Just this weekend, Trump attacked the U.S. women’s soccer team as a bunch of losers. Is any Republican politician really happy to have to answer questions about that — at the risk of earning the wrath of the former president?
Trump, as Janet Hooks reports, is actively intervening in a number of 2022 nomination contests, often selecting politicians who party strategists consider relatively, or in some cases very, weak general election candidates. It’s not clear how effective Trump’s endorsements will be as far as influencing voters directly is concerned, but it appears that they’re pretty important leading up the finish line, with candidates reportedly running or not running in response to Trump’s decisions.
It strikes me that the growth of party capacity in the United States is responsible for a good deal of Trump’s potential influence. Take, for example, how information flows in U.S. politics. In the 19th century, party-controlled newspapers dominated, but in the 20th century it was displaced by a “neutral” mass media — neutral not because it was unbiased (there are always biases in how the news is reported and presented), but because one of the strongest biases in that media was explicit neutrality between the political parties, along with encouragement of a style that presented itself as having no position on questions of public policy. That sort of media peaked in the era in which three broadcast networks and their local affiliates were the primary source of political news; starting about 40 years ago, we’ve seen new growth of party-aligned media. Trump relied to a large extent on the remaining strength of the neutral media to capture the Republican nomination in 2016, but ever since then he’s been sustained through the loyalty (or, perhaps, confluence of interests) of party-aligned media. Without Fox News, conservative talk radio, conservative links through social media, and the rest of Republican-aligned media, it’s unlikely that Republican voters would even know about Trump’s various whims — let alone think of them as quasi-official Republican positions.
The same thing is true almost across the board. Republican politicians are afraid of Trump because so many resources important to them are controlled by the national Republican Party network. Once upon a time, local parties were all-important, and local parties could mostly do what they wanted; there were no national parties to speak of. When local parties went through a period of weakness during the 20th century, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, individual politicians were temporarily empowered, and they could personally acquire and control resources crucial to their re-election. But over the last several decades, local and especially national party networks have taken the lead, learning how to raise money and steer it (and expertise) to the candidates they favor. Thus the series of Democratic presidential nominations to party-favored candidates after Jimmy Carter; thus the increasing ability of parties, as political scientists have found, to influence congressional nominations.
One could also make the case that while he was in office, Trump was able to advance the traditional party agenda precisely because of the growth of partisan governing networks, which have become far more important over the last several decades, in part at the expense of neutral expertise in government. Without those governing professionals, Trump and his small group of personal loyalists would have been even more easily rolled by the executive-branch bureaucracy and Congress. It’s true that Trump didn’t always follow the party’s previous policy, but in almost every case that was because he elevated minority factions within the party through his personnel choices — and it was far from clear he realized that he was doing so and was making deliberate policy choices, as opposed to just hiring those best at flattering him.
What Trump has done, then, is to basically hijack those resources and use them for his own purposes, with party actors unwilling to risk a fight to win them back. Trump’s only real weapon in this fight is that other Republican leaders realize he has no loyalty to the party at all, and so attempting to win back these resources risks having him take the party down with him. Perhaps that’s enough; perhaps once they failed to fight it out in the winter of 2015-2016, they set themselves on a path that they can’t escape. Perhaps not. It’s possible that Republican dysfunction has left them with a group of leaders who just aren’t up to the job of looking out for party interests. In other words, it’s possible that the problem isn’t weak political parties; it’s weak Republican party leaders. But the point here is that the party, despite its internal battles that push them in strange and self-destructive ways, retains a good deal greater capacity than was the case 40 years ago, and at the national level, far more than was ever the case in U.S. history. In other words, Trump is influential precisely because both political parties have built themselves powerful weapons — and because Republicans have foolishly turned theirs over to the most irresponsible person they could find.
2. Fascinating research from Paul Campos on Harry Truman’s finances and how now-massive funding of former presidents began.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.