Resolute Square

GOP's Trump Problem Isn't What They Think

Warning from Trygve Olson: Trump thinks and acts like an autocrat and still has the power structure to become one.
Credit: Andrew Harnik/Wikimedia Commons
Published:November 29, 2022
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Kevin McCarthy has problems. Not that I feel even the slightest bit sorry that he won't become Speaker of the House. GOP party chair Ronna McDaniel does too, but she won't be getting my sympathies either. The entire Republican Party has considerable tribulations. 

The irony is these troubles aren't what the so-called leaders, senior republican officials, major donors, and media supporters think they are. This lack of recognition of what ails the party is undoubtedly true among their senior operative and talking heads classes, too, those pushing the soundbite 'the party can have the Trump coalition without the insanity' as a strategy for redemption. 

They miss that autocratic power is top-down from the leader through a highly connected and trusted inner circle of a few, typically family. Underneath these few reside groups of self-interested appeasers, loyal underlings, and various enforcers overseeing the apparatuses of control. Finally, at the bottom live the masses whose acquiescence, acceptance, and support are the foundation upon which the entire vertical structure depends.

I know about this because I saw it firsthand, working alongside people fighting for democracy in countries ruled by autocrats. Before arriving, all my research, conversations, and thinking focused on that very small group of people who held power. Understanding the autocrat's power structure is the only way to find their vulnerabilities. 

Autocratic actors all hold the same objective. It doesn't matter who they are or where they reside—Putin in Russia, the Mullahs in Iran, Xi and the Communist Party in China, or Donald Trump's power over the Republican Party. Every autocrat's goal is to "gain and then maintain power." The game they play, the game we are in now in the United States, is zero-sum. The truth about power is you either have it or don't.

Since Donald Trump announced his decision to again run for President, we have heard a great deal about the challenges he faces:

  1. He is in legal jeopardy on many levels.
  2. The self-interested class of the vertical power structure he oversees in the GOP wants him gone and is actively trying to take him out.
  3. And even those closest to him, from his inner circle, when he was President, supposedly aren't supportive (think Ivanka and Jared).

All of these are, of course, true. But more importantly, do they matter?

In addition to holding the same objective, all autocrats use the same strategy to maintain power once they have it. They create an atmosphere of 'inevitability and invincibility through fear.' You know an autocrat is vulnerable when their aura is stripped away, and his supporters who once feared losing power and those working to make that happen develop faith in each other.

The reality right now in the Republican Party is fear of Donald Trump's power and control has not dissipated. Kevin McCarthy doesn't challenge Donald Trump because if he does, he knows he has no chance of becoming Speaker of the House. Ronna McDaniel also won’t cross Trump because her job and the party's fund-raising success ultimately depend on him. If Trump decides they are no longer with him in his zero-sum game, they become enemies to be defeated and destroyed. The same is true for the party as a whole.

Political operatives, donors, and even Fox News can say they want to replace Trump. They can jockey to push narratives blaming Trump for losses in the election or promoting guys like DeSantis. They might even convince themselves that an indictment would keep Trump out of the GOP primary. I think he runs even from a jail cell. Yet, even if this were to pass, what would be the most important endorsement any of these wannabes could get to make their Presidential dreams a reality? Donald Trump's endorsement. We know this because we just lived it.

By all accounts, Mitch McConnell is pissed off that Trump-endorsed candidates in places like Pennslyvania, Arizona, and Georgia will have cost him being Majority Leader. His strategists are the architects of the idea the Republican Party could have a "permanent governing coalition without the insanity of Trump." The irony is the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and thinking you will get a different result.

Donald Trump's control over the Republican Party is far from finished. My guess is he would instead finish off the Republican Party rather than allow his control over it to be finished. It is the law of how autocrats operate, which is the game Republican leadership is in. Until they understand this, there will be no challenge to Trump's control over the party and the threat that represents to American Democracy. Our job is to fight the insanity of the Republican coalition until it is defeated.

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