On Saturday night, the former president hinted at another run for the highest office in the United States, announcing to a crowd his determination to win the presidency once more. “We did it twice, and we’ll do it again,” he said. “We’re going to be doing it again a third time,” that is, reclaim the seat that was allegedly stolen from him in 2020.
This time around, however, Donald Trump faces new challenges. His anti-democratic behavior, his rejection of democratic norms, his admiration for autocratic rulers, his open derision of the validity of elections and the legitimacy of competitors, hasn’t gone unnoticed .
Already, Trump has lost the support of top Republican officials who supported him during the last two presidential elections. His GOP critics have even participated in conferences seeking to find alternatives who could rival Trump in the primaries. Most notably, Mitch McConnell, the current minority leader of the US Senate, has launched a “high-stakes candidate recruitment campaign” to recruit candidates who are against Trump’s assaults on democracy. He and his allies have made numerous phone calls, conducted meetings, and drafted polling memos in an effort to reverse Trump’s stronghold on the Republican party and his nomination prospects.
The actions of McConnell and other anti-Trump Republican officials holds promise for deterring Trump’s ascendency to the presidency. In their book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain that gatekeeping practices, where party officials filter candidates and prevent would-be autocrats from appearing on ballots, have long protected the United States from would-be authoritarians. They find that when party leaders prioritize democratic ideals over temptations to nominate a highly electable, albeit autocratically-minded candidate from office, they are able to protect democratic institutions .
However, for gatekeeping to successfully work, Levitsky and Ziblatt imply that party leaders must be united in their efforts to defeat extremist forces. It is not enough for a few Republican officials to denounce Trump. As long as most Republican leaders continue to endorse him, Trump stands a chance at achieving the presidency, which is what happened in prior elections . Herein lies the problem with gatekeeping efforts against Donald Trump: there is not enough Republican resistance to his candidacy.
Due to the passions he incites in his supporters, Trump has a firm hold over his voting base, which provides him immense leverage over Republican officials and has curtailed gatekeeping efforts to put an end to his reign.
Due to the passions he incites in his supporters, Trump has a firm hold over his voting base, which provides him immense leverage over Republican officials and has curtailed gatekeeping efforts to put an end to his reign. Tim Miller, a former political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, explains that Trump’s power chiefly originates from his base, whose vested interest in sustaining Trump’s power has compelled Republican officials to support Trump as well.
Indeed, Trump’s grip over his supporters has not faltered, even with his track record of anti-democratic behavior. Recent polls suggest that, amongst Republicans, Trump is still the most supported presidential candidate, outperforming his nearest competitor by around 43 points in a hypothetical 2024 primary. Trump is the party’s “most coveted endorser”: his messaging, the main means through which Republicans galvanize online supporters. In fact, media pundits are in general agreement that if Trump seeks the nomination, it will be his for the taking.
Trump’s appeal is rooted in his ability to elicit strong emotional responses from his supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild explains that Trump enthusiasts are often individuals who have felt excluded from political spheres, invisible minorities whose needs were neglected by politicians . To them, Trump is an “antidote to their hatred of government elites and a sense that the country [is being taken away from them] by demographic, social and economic change.”
Hochschild argues that it is through supporting Trump that these individuals can feel the “elation—the ‘high’ — of being part of a powerful, like-minded majority.” When his supporters immerse themselves in the mass movement that is his campaign, they tap into the emotions that have long eluded them. She articulates that voters grow attached to Trump after experiencing these emotions. They become his unconditional supporters — aggressively defending his political decisions and ruthlessly attacking his adversaries – employing all means necessary to protect Trump and preserve their elation .
The zealous commitment of Trump supporters has greatly thwarted Trump’s political adversaries. Congresswoman Liz Cheney’s vocal criticism of Trump’s coup attempt caused Republican voters to turn against her, and she has been the target of death threats and profane demonstrations asking for her removal. Beyond Cheney, Trump has arm-twisted other potential rivals, intimidating a majority of influential Republican politicians to succumb to his will. For Republican officials, the message is clear: standing against Trump means receiving the wrath of his supporters, an outcome that could lead to political ruin.
Consequently, defiance is scant. Prominent Republican officials are wary of condemning Trump openly, as many fear attracting Trump’s public wrath, leaving most of their concerns to be voiced anonymously in clandestine environments. Even Mitch McConnell is largely working behind closed doors to undermine Trump’s candidacy rather than publicly repudiating the former president. This has prevented the large-scale denouncement that is needed to hinder Trump’s nomination, as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that a public, systematic isolation is necessary to deter extremists .
Unless major Republican leaders collectively defy Trump, the former president will be able to undermine democratic norms and institutions in the highest office of the land, as he did before. Republican party leaders are, thus, faced with two choices: either take a stand against Trump and risk their political careers, or stand by his side and risk imperiling democracy altogether. The stakes are high, and with midterm elections close by, time is running out. If party leaders wish to put an end to Trump’s rule, they must act upon their gatekeeping prerogatives — and they must act now. Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, and Richard Valelly. “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” Perspectives on Politics 17, no. 02 (2018): 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1537592718003286.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Ibid.  Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press, 2016.  Ibid.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).