The power vacuum.
Wikipedia defines “power vacuum” as, “… an analogy between a physical vacuum, to the political condition ‘when someone has lost control of something and no one has replaced them.’ The situation can occur when a government has no identifiable central power or authority.”
It’s not just a government we’re talking about here. The “power vacuum” term equally applies to any political situation where something of great weight and authority is removed from a physical or psychological space and there’s nothing immediately standing by to fill the newly created emptiness. Such was the case for the GOP earlier this year when former President Donald Trump left the White House. Trump’s departure was rather quiet by his standards, coming on the heels of the January 6 riot where hundreds of his supporters got out of hand and invaded the capitol building. The vast majority of them were there to show a presence for Trump’s cause and nothing else. Others may have been goaded by the FBI.
The rest is history.
The nation was devastated, but no entity was more effected than the Republican Party by the dramatic final chapter of the (first?) Trump administration. Trump had been so dominant for so long that his sudden departure from the Washington power center created an enormous vacuum that no one could fill immediately. Several GOPers made lame attempts to jump in, including those siding with Democrats on the liberal party’s absurd second impeachment effort, a trick so ridiculous that Chief Justice John Roberts opted out of presiding over it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to assume the GOP’s leadership role, but there was no energy to back him. Establishmentarian McConnell had harsh words for Trump after January 6, but only a token few party members joined the Kentuckian in the symbolic thrashing of the outsider New Yorker.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t even try to take the reins of the Republican faction.
There was no one else. Trump laid low for a little while, then began making appearances and speeches at special events. He commented on current events in the media and criticized the new rulers for their multitude of failures. Senile president Joe Biden made for an easy target -- he was as bad as Trump had predicted. Trump’s reputation began making a comeback.
Now, of course, it’s all-but presumed that the 45th president will run again to try and become the 47th president in a few years. Trump certainly appears strong, not only within the GOP, which still suffers under an enormous leadership vacuum, but also with an American public that’s already soured on the stumbling and bumbling Biden. Democrats are scrambling to fill a leadership abyss of their own.
Is Trump’s ascension an illusion? Some observers speculate he’s more vulnerable than most people think. Rich Lowry wrote at National Review:
“As for Trump’s polling numbers, Republicans might tell pollsters they want him to run again as a way to stick a finger in the eye of the media or as a general statement of warm feelings toward him. Even if these findings are based on entirely forthcoming and sincere sentiments, wanting Trump to run is a threshold question that falls short of a commitment to vote for him two and a half years from now.
“Trump presumably will be vulnerable to electability questions. He lost last fall in part because Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton among suburban voters and independents. Biden is alienating these voters, but there’s nothing to indicate that Trump has done anything since November 2020 to make himself less repellent to them.
“GOP politicians have every reason to do what they can to keep Trump and his voters on board in the interest of a unified base in the run-up to the 2022 midterms. But if Republicans take Congress next year and are worried about keeping it in 2024, they will be wary of once again needing candidates to run better than Trump in swing districts to keep their gavels.”
In other words, Lowry concedes that Trump filled the leadership vacuum created by his own departure, but suggests the former president is not necessarily the one conservatives and Republicans are searching for now. The longtime establishment-leaning National Review writer has never been enthusiastic about Trump, and he and his staff probably rummage for clues to once again argue that Trump’s an orange-haired one-trick pony who really isn’t as popular as many suppose, even if polls show the man is leaps and bounds in front of everyone else when 2024 is mentioned.
If Lowry is correct and Trump’s really not as powerful as he seems, wouldn’t there need to be someone or something or replace his lost leadership?
Politics is a little like a football offensive line. If you take the center out of the formation after a play begins, there’s a huge cavity created right in front of the quarterback. The opening could be temporarily filled by a running back or one of the other linemen, but if real muscle isn’t applied to the onrushing defense, the play is going to fail. You can’t have the center disappear and expect that the other team will grant a reprieve. It doesn’t work that way.
Lowry argues that history hasn’t been kind to presidents who ran for reelection and lost, citing the examples of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. The point is well-taken, but neither the exit of the straw-haired, buck toothed Carter or the “wimp factor” older Bush left anything close to the leadership vacuum that opened after Trump flew to Florida on senile Joe’s inauguration day.
Trump never conceded the election, and still hasn’t. Trump also never hinted that he would resort to a traditional post-presidential role. He didn’t move down the road from the White House like Obama did, but he still maintained visibility and gave every indication that he intended to remain relevant, even if his beloved social media accounts were closed off by the liberal tech barons.
He also didn’t take up portrait painting like George W. Bush or become anchored to a shady, dirty money laundering foundation like Bill and Hillary Clinton (you have to include Hillary here since the two of them had a de facto co-presidency) did. On the contrary, Trump set out to build an entirely new political operation apart from the Republican Party. And last week he announced that the Trump family was entering the realm of social media.
These aren’t the actions of someone who is thinking about bowing out. This is the calling card of a great leader who briefly retreated after a serious defeat but is redeploying his forces and rallying them for another offensive thrust against the enemy. And yes, as the first two decades of the twenty-first century revealed, Democrats are indeed an enemy.
The reemergence of Trump is a lot more than Republicans being nice to him so as to keep his supporters happy until after next year’s midterm elections (as Lowry implied). Sure, there may be a core group of establishment Republicans who are taking this tack, but they won’t succeed if they try to dump Trump after he helps them back to the majority in a year.
The Republican old guard simply doesn’t have anyone waiting to fill Trump’s shoes. The Liz Cheneys and Adam Kinzingers of the GOP are a small party band without an agent or any bookings. You had to love it last week when conservative firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene confronted Cheney on the House floor during the stupid vote to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress. The anti-Trumpers among the Republican congressional delegation don’t have any breathing room. Their days are numbered.
And while Lowry’s point about the suburban and independent voters is well taken, a lot has changed since Election Day of 2020. Independent voters have abandoned senile Joe in droves and while not all of them would be itching to come back to Trump’s side, they’re certainly not going to fall for the “Biden is a uniter, Trump is a divider” political flimflam again.
In a good many ways, Trump was his own worst enemy, and this isn’t likely to change much ahead of 2024. But the policy successes that led to a pre-COVID burgeoning economy, an immigration system that worked, a foreign policy that kept America out of major wars and held allies and enemies accountable and a trade policy that functioned rather than broke down -- all will factor into a Trump candidacy.
This isn’t a call for every potential Trump 2024 GOP challenger to stand to the side and clear the way for him. There are still some who believe Trump won’t actually run again, though they’re becoming fewer in number and don’t really make much noise these days. Trump isn’t infallible and he’ll have to temper some of his personality in order to succeed the next time.
But the Republican Party’s power vacuum isn’t likely to be filled by anyone other than Donald Trump in the near future. There are a number of young conservative stars all across the country, and they will likely have their day regardless of the GOP presidential line-up in 2024. For now, it is fruitless to suggest Trump’s popularity is illusory. But it’s worthwhile to talk about it.
Marjorie Taylor Greene
Joe Biden administration
GOP 2024 presidential field