Last month, Donald Trump’s former UN ambassador Nikki Haley argued in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that “the liberal media … wants to stoke a nonstop Republican civil war”. She wrote that “The media playbook starts with the demand that everyone pick sides about Donald Trump – either love or hate everything about him. The moment anyone on the right offers the slightest criticism of the 45th president, the media goes berserk.”
Her op-ed came amid Republican criticism of her interview with Politico, where she argued that Trump “went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Haley is considered a more “moderate” member of the Republican Party, a quality these days determined less by ideology and more by one’s willingness to criticise Trump or to openly propagate conspiracy theories.
If you are following Trump’s recent return to the political limelight, notably his first major public speech since President Biden’s inauguration in January, it is not difficult to see that it’s not the liberal media stoking divisions among Republicans, it’s Trump himself.
Trump is the one who “demands that everyone pick sides”. Trump is the one who “goes berserk” “the moment anyone on the right offers the slighted criticism of the 45th president”.
His speech at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 28 was a stark reminder that the Republican Party is still the party of Trump, and that no matter how Republicans spin it, Trump is holding the GOP hostage. He demands absolute fealty or political destruction from Republican members of Congress and party officials, and the party’s leadership should know the dangers of this approach – notably that the Republican Party will not be able to win back either chamber of Congress, let alone the White House, if Trump continues to divide and dominate the party in this way.
Trump won the straw poll for the 2024 Republican candidates for president that was taken at the CPAC last week, an event that gathers the far-right segments of the Republican Party. He celebrated coming in first with 55 percent, followed by Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who finished second with 21 percent of the vote. In a second poll that did not include Trump, Governor DeSantis was the preferred choice. But at the current political moment, it is difficult to imagine the Republican Party without Trump.
Quinnipiac polling taken after Trump was impeached for a second time in the House of Representatives but acquitted by the US Senate, revealed that 75 percent of Republican voters want Trump to continue to play a major role in the Republican Party. According to the same poll, most Americans – 55 percent – believe that Trump should not be allowed to hold elected office, while 87 percent of Republicans say he should.
As the polling analyst pointed out, “He may be down, but he is certainly not out of favour with the GOP. Twice impeached, vilified by Democrats in the trial, and virtually silenced by social media … despite it all, Donald Trump keeps a solid foothold in the Republican Party.”
CPAC was held in Orlando, Florida, a state that Trump won in the 2020 contest against now President Biden. The conference venue featured a golden statue of the former president, a fan favourite for those attending, while also featuring a stage that many have criticised for its resemblance to a symbol used on Nazi uniforms and popular with white supremacists in both Europe and the United States.
The stage also featured the slogan “Uncancel America” in reference to the so-called “cancel culture” that Republicans claim is used by the “radical Democrats” to limit free speech. The latest iteration of these cancel culture wars is the debate over racist elements in the Dr Seuss children’s books – which Republicans are rallying to defend. Fox News has been airing coverage all week over how the Democrats are trying to unfairly “cancel” these children’s books. A Media Matters report documented that conservative media outlet Fox News spent twice as much time covering this “cancel culture war” than discussing the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
The conference featured well-known Trump allies, including Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas – both of whom led the charge to not certify Biden’s Electoral College win on the day of the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection.
The event was also notable for those Republicans who did not speak. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not vote to impeach Trump but did publicly criticise, was not invited. Former Vice President Mike Pence declined to attend, preferring to lay low after Trump turned on him for certifying Biden’s win and reports showed that January 6 rioters were planning on attacking and possibly murdering him for his disloyalty to Trump. Former Trump officials who have publicly sparred with the former president, including Nikki Haley, declined to attend. The third most powerful Republican in Congress, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, also did not attend. Her newfound role representing the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party has come at great political cost to her in both local and national politics.
In Trump’s speech, a few key points stand out. First, he called the reports about him starting a third party to challenge the Republicans “fake news,” claiming that he would not do something to divide the vote and hurt Republican chances at the ballot box. He peddled the usual conspiracy theories that have become known to most Americans and the world, including baseless claims of widespread election fraud, racist tropes about immigrants, cancel culture debates, and tirades about how his administration was the most successful that ever existed. Toward the end of the speech, in a not so thinly veiled threat, he very slowly named all the Republican members of Congress that voted to impeach him, letting the audience respond with heated anger and loud booing. He ended the list with Republican nemesis Congresswoman Cheney. Trump has already promised to support primary challenges against her candidacy in the 2022 midterm elections and has publicly called for her removal from Republican leadership.
The Republican Party responded harshly to her support for the former president’s impeachment, and many tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to organise a vote to remove her from power.
Trump’s speech was more than just his usual tirade against the “radical Democrats” and Joe Biden. It was a rallying cry against the Republican Party of Mitch McConnell and Liz Cheney. It was yet another unabashed demand for complete loyalty to Trumpism as a requisite for Republican Party membership.
He left the conference audience hanging about whether he would be running for president in 2024, saying “Who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time,” to which the room responded with thundering applause. He will likely keep the possibility of running for president open for some time to maintain his political relevance and, quite simply, to make more money.
But Trump is facing a barrage of both civil and criminal lawsuits and investigations into his conduct surrounding his businesses, his challenge to the 2020 election results, and a host of other issues. Losing the election and transitioning from president to private citizen leaves him open to more lawsuits, not to mention prison time, that he was able to previously avoid thanks to some immunity privileges typically granted to US presidents. How these lawsuits pan out will help answer the questions surrounding any future presidential bid.
Whether he can stay relevant without his social media platforms and the presidential bully pulpit throughout the Biden term is also an open-ended question. His popularity is still unquestioned among most Republicans, but it’s only two months into Biden’s first term. Plus Republicans are already thinking about other potential candidates, including Florida Governor DeSantis and even former Vice President Mike Pence.
But if Trump can’t be the king, he will insist on being the kingmaker. If this means stoking divisions in the Republican Party, or even destroying it, you can be sure that’s what he will do. And the Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. It wasn’t the liberal media that pushed Republicans to tie their political future to the success or failure of Trumpism, and, contrary to what Nikki Haley claims, it’s not the liberal media that is sowing discord among Republicans. It’s a monster of their own creation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.