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Romney, Trump and the future of the GOP

Sen. Mitt Romney was one of seven Republicans to vote for Trump’s conviction. Will the GOP of the future follow his lead, or stay loyal to Trump?

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, returns to the Senate chamber from a short break as House impeachment managers present their second day of arguments in the Senate trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. Romney was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict the former president. The New York Times editorial board made the case Tuesday that President Joe Biden should use Romney’s plan for fixing child poverty.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, returns to the chamber from a short break as House impeachment managers present their second day of arguments in the Senate trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. Romney was one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict the former president.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

While citizens were appropriately focused on vaccinations, rebuilding the economy and repairing the education system, the U.S. Senate was busy with the second impeachment trial of former President Donald J. Trump. Much has already been written about the political impact of this historic event and the future of the Republican Party post-Trump. But we can’t help but pile on.

Sen. Mike Lee was among 43 colleagues who acquitted Trump, while Sen. Mitt Romney was one of seven Republicans who voted to convict. Will national and Utah Republicans punish Romney for his vote?

Pignanelli: “The Liz Cheney vote tells you what Republicans really think.” — Chris Christie 

Jenga is a popular game wherein players compete in removing wooden blocks from a tower until it ultimately collapses. Most of the animosity toward Romney was constructed by his antagonistic relationship with Trump. Like a Jenga tower, over time this will disintegrate.

Polls indicate a majority of Republicans support President Trump. But recent developments reveal GOP leaders are distancing from him. Congresswoman Cheney was overwhelmingly affirmed in a leadership position despite her impeachment vote. The nation’s most powerful Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, publicly excoriated Trump and held him responsible for the events of Jan. 6. McConnell sent a clear message that actions against Trump should not cease and gave Romney a pass.

Romney will likely confront a 2024 convention battle as he did in 2018. But over the next four years, he can demonstrate his conservative bona fides when pushing back against a Democratic administration.

The Jenga tower built on Trump’s hostility to Romney is slowly losing blocks and will eventually fall.

Webb: The Utah Republican Party wisely issued a statement invoking Ronald Reagan’s “big tent” aspiration for the party. The statement seeks to avoid an intra-party fight by saying, “disagreement is natural and healthy,” and it’s OK for Republicans to “showcase a diversity of thought.” 

So Romney won’t be formally censured by the party, but a lot of Utah Republicans are disappointed in his continued antipathy toward Trump (except when he was a candidate for secretary of state). If Romney seeks reelection in 2024 he will almost certainly face a strong GOP opponent.

As I’ve written previously, I have little sympathy for Trump, because he brought his problems on himself with his narcissism. But I feel bad for his followers, and I feel bad for the policy setbacks that are coming. The Biden administration is taking a hard lurch to the left, to the detriment of the country.

Romney, like most Democrats, will probably never understand Trump’s appeal to average, working-class, patriotic Republicans who feel left behind. These are heartland Americans who resent coastal and big-city elites labeling them domestic terrorists and considering them systemically racist. They feel vulnerable to Big Tech canceling or censoring them. They fear losing jobs if they say something politically incorrect. They believe their conservative family values and moral principles are under attack. Identity and victimhood politics repel them. They really do cling to their guns and religion. And there are a lot more of these folks than the elitists recognize.

Will the Republican Party break into pro-Trump and establishment factions that are hostile to each other?

Pignanelli: Even a casual observer of the news would conclude a split within GOP ranks has existed since 2015. But many traditional Republicans remained quiet as Trump’s success isolated their concerns. Trumpistas possess the advantage of an ideology attached to a charismatic individual, whereas mainstream Republicans have not coalesced around a nationally recognized leader as of yet. But the disadvantage for Trumpistas is their mentor will soon be distracted by legal and financial pressures. The two opposing forces will be pitted against each other in 2022. Eventually there will be several candidates who can appeal to the Trump base but also excite the conventional, while organizing a coalition to compete against Vice President Kamala Harris.

Webb: I don’t see a problem for state and congressional races in Utah, but Republicans won’t win another presidential election until Trump Republicans and establishment Republicans can unite on a candidate. That won’t be easy. 

Since Trump lost, neither the Biden administration or establishment Republicans have made any attempt to understand, or appeal to, heartland, working-class Republicans. In fact, the opposite is true. The Biden agenda of big government, higher taxes, social justice, environmental extremism, identity politics and cancel culture is their worst nightmare.

Establishment politicians live in an echo chamber where they watch network news, read The New York Times and The Washington Post, and receive positive feedback from Hollywood, big business and Big Tech. And they think that’s America. There’s a whole side of America out there that can’t relate to them and they can’t relate to it.

How long will Trump continue to be a factor in U.S. politics?

Pignanelli: It is rare for a former president to have extraordinary influence on a political party. (Exceptions include Andrew JacksonGrover ClevelandTheodore Roosevelt). History suggests that Trump’s dedicated base will decrease over time. But many of our beloved traditions were smashed in the last several years, and this may be a victim. Regardless, presidential contenders will have a Trump strategy in 2024.

Webb: It really is up to Trump. No one knows what role he will play. I very much want the party to move beyond Trump. But the party must better understand his followers and bring them along.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.