After an attempted coup by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2020, several Republican lawmakers decided it was time to untangle themselves from their flailing president and the militants he incited. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma conceded that pushing the issue of alleged electoral fraud would not be apt with all the enthusiasm of a converso in 15th-century Spain. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced his disapproval of the mob’s behavior, though he could not resist sneaking in a comparison to the Black Lives Matter protests as Republicans are wont to do. A week after Trump crossed his hundredth Rubicon, it seemed only Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and a small handful of other hardliners remained completely unrepentant.
Some political observers watched the aftermath unfold and expressed hope that it marked the end of the Trump era; surely, the riot was shocking enough that Republicans, for reasons of self-preservation or genuine patriotic concern, would renounce Trump and what he represented for good. Republicans certainly made an effort to foster that impression. But that impression, like many of the things they say, is misleading.
The Trump era is not over; it is entering an even more dangerous phase. The premise is this: Donald Trump’s base remains a powerful and virulent political force. While it is difficult to clearly define the parameters of his base, several markers can be used to estimate their strength in the Republican Party. A YouGov poll shows that nearly half of Republicans supported the attack, and 52% of Republicans place at least some blame on Joe Biden for the violence. According to another poll, Trump still commands a 71% approval rating within the GOP. An even higher amount, 73% of Republican respondents, still think that Trump is protecting democracy.
Trump’s wide-ranging support is not limited to the conservative grassroots. Even as federal workers struggled to clear the debris, Republican National Committee members were singing paeans and unanimously re-electing Trump’s hand-picked chairwoman. The glut of loyalists within the party apparatus is partially the result of a concerted effort to stack state and local GOP conventions with Trump’s people ahead of the 2020 election, a state of affairs likely to last until the next round of Republican presidential primaries. While the Republican National Committee does not possess centralized jurisdiction over state and local parties, it is largely composed of chairs and committeepersons chosen by the state parties, which often wield substantial influence in primary elections and other political affairs.
Even if Trump himself retreats from politics, his army of supporters will continue to demand obedience from their elected officials. And many Republicans will respond positively to those demands because doing otherwise would cost them dearly. Directly emulating Trump’s militant rhetoric might raise some eyebrows as long as the coup is seared into the public memory, but Republicans can also communicate with dog whistles that appeal to demographic resentments. This trick has been a well-practiced staple of the conservative movement since its very genesis.
In 1976, Ronald Reagan evoked stereotypes of single Black women when he scorned “Cadillac-driving welfare queens”; forty years later, Trump and his trained magpies croaked about Hillary Clinton’s association with “international banks” and “global special interests” in allusion to anti-Semitic themes found in multi-volume books and Reddit forums alike. The point is to use coded language that their targets can understand and internalize while still sounding innocuous to the world at large — or at least retaining some plausible deniability. When accused of doing just that, Republicans usually try to defend their honor. Or they fess up, as Republican strategist Lee Atwater did in 1981.
Therein lies the danger. While Trump was being Trump, everyone paid attention to his utterances but what happens when his successors more effectively conceal their bigotry? Dog-whistling Republicans probably hope no one but their intended audience will take notice, especially after they made such a big deal of disavowing the riots as an isolated act of reckless desperation. In this way, they can scatter the opposition by attrition, while empowering racists and preserving their own political fortunes largely undetected and unmolested. This cannot be allowed to happen. Holding them accountable to their words and actions is imperative; without an obvious threat, there is little reason for a coalition to remain on the field. Only by staying vigilant can upstanding citizens remain mobilized in defense of democracy and social justice.
Nicholas Liu believes that even if Trump is in retreat, the GOP will continue to appeal to his base by subtly evoking racist themes that some people will not notice, or even willfully dismiss.