Kash Jain ’24
Last week, the Chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, told former President Donald Trump that she plans to resign later this month. McDaniel, who oversaw her party’s defeat in 2020 and a worse-than-expected showing in 2022, has had the longest tenure of any RNC Chair since the party’s inception. Despite its losses, McDaniel has retained the party’s support, unanimously winning reelection in 2019 and 2021, and taking 66% of the vote in 2023. Now, the popular opinion appears to be that McDaniel is not really being ousted for her poor performance as chair, but because of Trump’s dissatisfaction with her. She may have been exceptionally loyal to the former president, endorsing his false claims of widespread election fraud in 2020 and even allegedly agreeing to stop using her maiden name, Romney, due to Trump’s distaste for her uncle, Mitt Romney; however, for whatever reason, she has finally lost Trump’s favor — and with that, she will lose her seat.
Trump’s increased control over the Republican Party has been discussed at great length by political scientists, opinion columnists and those in the political class. It’s clear that Trump has a massive amount of influence over Republican politicians and policies at every level of government; it’s clear that this control has grown so big that Trump stands above the party and all that surrounds it, rewarding the devout and ruining the disloyal. Exactly what this does, however, is not well-discussed, and the past few months illustrate this quite clearly.
Centrally, such massive control by Trump and his loyalists has weakened the Republican Party, with control over it shifting from traditional party elites to Trump and an activist cloud that was once relegated to the outskirts of the party. Even where there are more traditional conservative party officials in charge, they are beholden to Trump’s desires. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this is the near-universal support among high-level Republican officials for the false claims of election fraud. Without evidence, Republicans have spent three years repeating the lie that Trump and his allies originated; they’ve fallen in line or had their careers ended.
This new control has three core impacts: it disrupts state parties, tampers with the ability of Republicans to pursue a coherent policy agenda and pushes the party further and further right.
Control of many state Republican parties has shifted to far-right Trump loyalists who lack the experience, knowledge and connections to run a political party well. This has led to inconsistent leadership, electoral failures such as Republican losses in competitive races in 2022 and general chaos. Perhaps these effects are especially pronounced in battleground states because the former president’s focus and increased pressure to win have allowed the far-right to gain a strong foothold within their state parties. In a hotly-contested race, strategy and strong leadership are key to success, and the lack of know-how surrounding failed campaigns and the state parties leaves more obvious results.
The Arizona and Michigan Republican Parties sit on the verge of bankruptcy, and over the past month, chairs in both states and Nevada have become embroiled in some sort of controversy linked to either the former president or his far-right allies. Several top officials in the Nevada Republican Party, including Chairman Michael McDonald, were indicted over their attempts to falsely certify a Trump win in the state in 2020. After only a year in his position, Arizona Republican Party Chair Jeff DeWitt, a former Trump appointee and campaign staffer, resigned after a leaked recording showed that he attempted to bribe another Trump ally and Senate candidate to drop her bid. Perhaps the most demonstrative is the ongoing dispute over who chairs the Michigan Republican Party. Two individuals claim they are chair: Kristina Karamo, who took the seat last February, and Pete Hoekstra. In early January, Kamaro was voted out, largely because of the party’s financial state; however, she has claimed that this meeting was illegal and that the result is illegitimate. The RNC has said that her claim is false, but has not recognized Hoekstra, her successor.
This sort of turmoil is not confined to states or the party’s leaders. Congressional Republicans have grown increasingly disorganized as the number of Trump-backed far-right members has increased. The ousting of McCarthy as Speaker and Mike Johnson’s ascension have been part of this, but the chaos has also spread to ordinary policy decisions. Just last week, despite emphasizing illegal immigration as a top priority and a hit against Biden, Republicans killed a bipartisan immigration bill that would have expanded federal control to limit border crossings. The Oklahoma Republican Party censured one of their own, Senator James Lankford, for even negotiating with Senate Democrats; Trump loudly came out against the bill, and even the staunchest proponents of strict border control in the Republican ranks voted against it. Much of this, even explicitly stated by Republican officials, has been because it’s an election year, and solving an issue that Trump wants to campaign on is politically disadvantageous.
Even before the border bill, Congressional Republicans have pursued little on the legislative front, primarily focusing on attempting to impeach or investigate Democratic officials and passing messaging bills. As it currently stands, the party hardly pursues a coherent policy agenda at the federal level, with its actions directed more by what Trump wants than their actual stances. In the minority, with the main focus being on re-electing Trump and going after his political opponents, there simply is nothing else they are interested in getting done.
The Republican Party, especially at the national level, has become disorganized and largely directionless, with few goals outside of promoting Trump. Trump’s movement, stuffed with extremists and outsiders lacking any government experience, is toxic to cohesion and has failed to run the day-to-day in Congress or in state parties. Simply put, Trump and his allies barely know what they’re doing, and this can be seen through their struggles to run and retain consistent leadership in state parties and Congress.
But, that does not mean that everyone in Trump’s camp is incompetent. Instead, it means that the few activists with carefully tailored policy goals and rhetoric to accompany them have succeeded in taking the wheel in instances where there is someone actually steering. From Stephen Miller to the Heritage Foundation, the far- right has found itself in a new and powerful position because of Trump’s domination; they are tethered to him, staffing the campaigns of him and his allies, writing their policy goals and proposed legislation. Those who were unable to make as much progress in the old GOP have found themselves with the ear of the most powerful person in the entire party. The combination of a Democratic President and Senate, the persistence of some of the Republican old guard in Congress, and checks and balances in the federal government have, so far, successfully prevented Trump and his allies from ramming through country-reshaping, power-consolidating policies at the federal level. However, it’s easy to imagine a Republican trifecta with Trump at the helm, one run by far-right staffers emphatically trying to rewrite the basic structure of America, actually realizing the goals they have spent the past few years cultivating.
Trump has reshaped the Republican Party. It’s weaker, largely run by radical outsiders who have helped impede its electoral success. But, should Republicans manage to regain power this November, the activist camp that now has free reign within the party will be empowered to pursue a more coherent, aggressively right-wing agenda.