There is a real and genuine desire among almost every responsible actor in American politics to move on from the era defined by Donald Trump’s presidency. Only cynicism—a condition distinct from wisdom—would lead anyone to honestly conclude that the nation’s stakeholders welcome the events of January 2021. But moving on is a luxury that won’t come easy. Even if those stakeholders are sincere in their desire to turn the page on this bitterly fractious moment in American history, the incentives to do that don’t exist.
What is the Democratic incentive to move beyond Trump? Restoring a sense of normalcy, reducing the national temperature, and lubricating the gears of government to confirm Joe Biden’s nominees and pass Democratic initiatives into law? Of course. But to let Trump slip away quietly—even if he were so inclined, which he almost certainly is not—would be to abandon best political practices. Trump and his legacy achievement, the sacking of the Capitol, have cost the GOP access to millions of dollars in political contributions from private commercial interests. It has already convinced hundreds of swing-state Republicans to register as independent, and the party’s favorability ratings are in a tailspin. And the powerful psychological hold the president maintains over the voters who are left in the GOP column has compelled most elected Republican representatives to back the president even as his job-approval ratings fall off a cliff.
Though Democrats may theoretically welcome an authentically post-Trump right, it would be political malpractice to make achieving that goal easy for the GOP. For example, former South Carolina governor and Donald Trump’s first United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, whose White House ambitions are not closely guarded, launched a new political action committee on Thursday. But, to survey some of the press around the launch, the most notable aspect of Haley’s PAC launch was the conspicuous absence of any mention of the administration in which she served. The usual suspects‘ predictable response has been to warn Haley that she won’t be able to dissociate from Trump so easily. But why not? Because the Democratic imperative is to tether every Republican to Trump from now until the Rapture, even if that preserves the most undesirable aspects of the Trump era.
Haley is, however, an outlier within her party. Republicans, too, cannot afford even to entertain, much less make, the clean break with Trump that some of the party’s institutionalists would like to see. Those who have not recoiled from self-identifying as Republican remain nominally beholden to the president and his movement—at least, as indicated in opinion polls (which, while dubious, still inform how political actors navigate their environments).
As The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last lamented, “91 percent of self-identified “Trump supporters” say Trump was right to try to overturn the election,” and “Poll after poll shows that three-quarters of all Republicans say that the 2020 election results were fraudulent.” Are these expressions of unqualified agreement with the president’s unsupported claims of electoral malfeasance, or just an expression of contempt for pollsters among the few respondents who bother to pick up the phone anymore? Who knows? But to parse the data is to miss the point. The signals Republicans will internalize from these surveys is that they are trapped in orbit around the president’s personality cult.
And what of the press? For all political media’s frustrations with the Trump years, they’ve also been lucrative and a source of identity. Trump gave the Washington Post its slogan. Entire beats that did not exist prior to Trump have been incepted as a result of his presidency. The journalists who’ve covered this White House are the subjects of innumerable profiles reflecting on their enterprising work and the trauma these “beleaguered chroniclers” suffer as a result.
In a New York Times dispatch detailing the thinking within cable news networks like CNN and MSNBC, the lean years ahead in which viewers will “no longer need their nightly therapy sessions with Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon” is a frightening prospect. Equal and opposite forces are at work on Trump-friendly outfits. Fox News Channel has seen its ratings decline after the president declared war on the network for failing to uniformly advance his preferred narratives about election fraud. There is no shortage of less responsible competitors in the conservative cable news space willing to satisfy their audience’s demands for misinformation. So, what are these media ventures to do? The simplest, most commercially viable approach is not to let Trump go. And the president will almost certainly give these institutions every reason to do just that.
We are already assured that the Trump presidency will not end with the Trump administration. The 45th president’s “trial” in the U.S. Senate following his second impeachment by the House will almost certainly occur after Joe Biden’s inauguration. Trump’s efforts to retain the Republican voting base’s affections and breathless will-he, won’t-he speculation over another run for the White House in 2024 (assuming the Congress doesn’t bar him from holding political office again) will dominate the cable news spectrum. Though they might resent it, Trump remains a kingmaker within the Republican Party. He will demand a seat at the table (and a speaking slot at the next nominating convention), and Republican elected leaders will have little power to deny him. And Democrats will need to keep the specter of Trumpism alive for the foreseeable future, if only to preserve the foil they ably leveraged to retake the House, Senate, and White House in just four years.
It is in no one’s immediate interest to let Trump go, even if they all desperately and sincerely want to do just that.