In the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, seven out of 50 Republican senators voted to convict the former president of inciting insurrection. This has raised more questions than it has answered about where the Republican Party is going.
It still looks like Trump’s party, but for how long? Bill Cassidy, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump, says Trump’s power over the party will “wane”. He will certainly hope so. The Republican Party of Louisiana has already censured Cassidy for his disloyalty to Trump.
On the other hand, Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top allies, believes Trump and his supporters are so important to the future of the party that Republicans should nominate his daughter-in-law to replace retiring Senator Richard Burr (who voted to convict).
Some in the party see Trump as a major liability who will only get more toxic. He is the first president since 1932 to oversee the loss of the White House and both houses of Congress in a single term. Joe Biden got the highest vote share of any presidential challenger since 1932 in the highest-turnout election since 1900, earning 7 million more votes than Trump.
However much Trump energised his supporters, he energised more of his opponents.
Despite all this, Republicans came within 90,000 votes of winning both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2020. Many Republicans believe Trump is an electoral asset who helped them outperform expectations and narrow the Democrats’ margins nationwide.
Unlike in 2012, there won’t be a Republican Party autopsy of the election defeat. Large numbers of Republicans doubt the outcome of the election, and most of the party’s legislators are unwilling to tell them otherwise.
So what might the future hold?
The party is unlikely to split
For now, the two sides are stuck with each other.
These threats have quickly evaporated. The most a new conservative party could achieve is to damage the electoral prospects of Republicans (something Trump might have contemplated in the face of the impeachment threat).
The American electoral system, which is winner-takes-all from top to bottom, is notoriously unforgiving to would-be third parties. Even people who feel alienated from their own parties are better off staying and fighting for power rather than forming a new party, which would never get anywhere near power.
It has been more than 160 years since divisions over slavery destroyed major parties in the United States. The Republican and Democratic parties have survived since the Civil War despite numerous fractures and even violent conflicts.
Congressional outcasts occasionally defect to the other major party. But, more often, members at odds with their party eventually retire and are replaced by new members more closely aligned with its direction. This process is one of the factors leading to the current polarisation of Congress.
Moderates are being policed more harshly than extremists
Newly elected representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has become the focus of concerns about right-wing extremism in the Republican Party. Greene has a long history of amplifying dangerous conspiracy theories on social media.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned that “loony lies and conspiracy theories” are “a cancer for the Republican Party and our country”. Greene fired back: “The real cancer for the Republican Party is weak Republicans who only know how to lose gracefully. This is why we are losing our country.”
House Democrats moved to strip Greene of her membership of congressional committees after Republican leader Kevin McCarthy refused to discipline her.
But Greene’s central conspiratorial grievance – that Trump was robbed of a rightful victory in the 2020 election – is an article of faith and a politically energising force for much of the Republican base. Trump raised US$255 million dollars off it in the weeks after the election.
Many Republicans in Congress acquiesced to the “stolen election” fantasy, some with the excuse that they are faithfully representing their constituents. Even McConnell waited weeks before acknowledging Biden’s victory.
Republicans who openly acknowledged Biden’s victory and dismissed claims of widespread election fraud faced anger and censure from state party organisations, as well as from Trump himself. Republicans who backed impeachment saw immediate retribution, and will almost certainly have to defeat well-supported primary challengers in the future.
The historical willingness of American conservatives to police extremism has been overstated. It doesn’t matter that Trump and Greene are poison to the larger electorate. Neither election losses nor the stigma of “extremism” are enough to kill right-wing political movements in America.
Accepting the Republican nomination in 1964, Barry Goldwater declared that “extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”. Goldwater went on to one of the largest electoral defeats in history, but within 15 years his movement, led by Ronald Reagan, had thoroughly conquered the Republican Party, taken the White House and reshaped American political culture. Trump’s followers have similar ambitions.
‘Trumpism’ without Trump could be tough to pull off
No one knows yet what role Trump will play in future Republican politics. His recent attack on McConnell suggests he at least wants to continue to punish Republicans he sees as disloyal. The possibility Trump could run again will make politics awkward for Republicans eager to claim his mantle for their own presidential ambitions.
The prospect of “Trumpism without Trump” has enticed conservatives and worried liberals ever since the Trump phenomenon began. Republicans have learned to rail against “globalism” and the “deep state”. They are unlikely to return to comprehensive immigration reform any time soon.
Trump has breathed new life into old conservative staples such as law and order and the perils of socialism. But Trump’s relationship with his supporters goes far beyond his political positions, or even the grievances and emotions he harnessed.
Trump’s appeal was based on the perception that he had unique gifts that no politician ever had. He cultivated a media image that made him synonymous, however incorrectly, with business success. His tireless verbal output, whether through Twitter or at endless rallies, created an alternative reality for his followers. Many saw him as chosen by God.
That kind of charismatic magic will be extremely difficult for any career politician to recapture. Republicans may discover that Trumpism is not a political movement but a business model, a model only ever designed for one benefactor.
The first Newspoll of 2021 has the major parties tied at 50-50 on two-party preferred, a one-point gain for Labor since the final 2020 Newspoll in late November. The poll was conducted January 27-30 from a sample of 1,512 people.
Primary votes were 42% Coalition (down one point), 36% Labor (steady), 10% Greens (down one) and 3% One Nation (up one).
63% were satisfied with PM Scott Morrison’s performance (down three) and 33% were dissatisfied (up three), for a net approval of +30 points. While this is still very high, analyst Kevin Bonham says it is Morrison’s lowest net approval since April.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese had a net approval of -2, down five points. Morrison led Albanese by 57-29 as better prime minister (60-28 in November).
While much commentary has written off Labor for the next election, a source of hope for the opposition is that while the Coalition has usually been ahead since the COVID crisis began, the two-party-preferred margin has been close.
Morrison’s great approval ratings have not translated into big leads for the Coalition. It is plausible that by the middle of this year COVID will not be a major threat owing to a global vaccination program.
A return to a focus on normal issues could assist Labor in undermining Morrison’s ratings and the Coalition’s slender lead on voting intentions.
Albanese has come under attack from the left owing to Thursday’s reshuffle in which Chris Bowen took the climate change portfolio from Mark Butler.
But the Greens lost a point in Newspoll rather than gaining. With the focus on COVID, climate change appears to have lost salience.
On Australia Day and climate change
In an Ipsos poll for Nine newspapers, taken before January 25 from a sample of 1,220 people, 48% disagreed with changing Australia Day from January 26, while 28% agreed.
But by 49-41 voters thought it likely Australia Day would be changed within the next ten years.
In a Morgan SMS poll, conducted January 25 from a sample of 1,236 people, 59% thought January 26 should be known as Australia Day, while 41% thought it should be known as Invasion Day.
In an Essential poll conducted in mid-January, 42% (down 20 since January 2020) thought Australia was not doing enough to address climate change, 35% (up 16) thought we were doing enough and 10% (up two) thought we were doing too much.
But there was a slight increase in those thinking climate change was caused by human activity (58%, up two since January 2020), while 32% (steady) thought we are just witnessing a normal fluctuation in the earth’s climate.
Trump set to be acquitted in impeachment trial
I related on January 20 that Donald Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives over his role in inciting the January 6 riots with his baseless claims of election fraud.
The Senate is tied at 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the majority with her casting vote. But it requires a two-thirds majority to convict a president, so 17 Republicans would need to join the Democrats for conviction.
On January 26, a vote was called on whether it was constitutional to try a former president. The Senate ruled it constitutional by 55-45, but just five Republicans joined all Democrats.
That is far short of the 17 required to convict, so Trump is set to be acquitted at the Senate trial that begins February 8.
Only ten of over 200 House Republicans supported impeachment. It is clear the vast majority of Congressional Republicans consider it more important to keep the Trump supporters happy than to hold Trump accountable for the rioters that attacked Congress.
In a late January Monmouth University poll, 56% approved of the House impeaching Trump while 42% disapproved. When asked whether the Senate should convict, support dropped to 52-44.
FiveThirtyEight has started an aggregate of polls to track new President Joe Biden’s ratings. His current ratings are 54.3% approve and 34.6% disapprove for a net approval of +19.7 points.
While Biden’s ratings are better than Trump’s at any stage of his presidency, they are worse on net approval than all presidents prior to Trump this early in their terms.
Prior to Trump, presidents were given a honeymoon even by opposition party supporters, but it is unlikely the 30% or so who believe Biden’s win illegitimate will ever approve of him.
“The lie outlasts the liar,” writes historian Timothy Snyder, referring to outgoing president Donald Trump and his contribution to the “post-truth” era in the US.
Indeed, the mass rejection of reason that erupted in a political mob storming Capitol Hill mere weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden tests our ability to comprehend contemporary American politics and its emerging forms of extremism.
Much has been written about Trump’s role in spreading misinformation and the media failures that enabled him. His contribution to fuelling extremism, flirting with the political fringe, supporting conspiracy theories and, most of all, Twitter demagogy created an environment in which he has been seen as an “accelerant” in his own right.
If the scale of international damage is yet to be calculated, there is something we can measure right now.
In September last year, the London-based Media Diversity Institute (MDI) asked us to design a research project that would systematically track the extent to which US-originated conspiracy theory group QAnon had spread to Europe.
Twitter and the rise of QAnon
We examined the role religion played in spreading conspiracy theories, the most common topics of tweets, and what social groups were most active in spreading QAnon ideas.
We focused on Twitter because its increasing use — some sources estimate 330 million people used Twitter monthly in 2020 — has made it a powerful political communication tool. It has given politicians such as Trump the opportunity to promote, facilitate and mobilise social groups on an unprecedented scale.
Using AI tools developed by data company Textgain, we analysed about half-a-million Twitter messages related to QAnon to identify major trends.
By observing how hashtags were combined in messages, we examined the network structure of QAnon users posting in English, German, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. Researchers identified about 3,000 different hashtags related to QAnon used by 1,250 Twitter profiles.
An American export
Every fourth QAnon tweet originated in the US (300). Far behind were tweets from other countries: Canada (30), Germany (25), Australia (20), the United Kingdom (20), the Netherlands (15), France (15), Italy (10), Spain (10) and others.
We examined QAnon profiles that share each other’s content, Trump tweets and YouTube videos, and found over 90% of these profiles shared the content of at least one other identified profile.
Seven main topics were identified: support for Trump, support for EU-based nationalism, support for QAnon, deep state conspiracies, coronavirus conspiracies, religious conspiracies and political extremism.
Hashtags rooted in US evangelicalism sometimes portrayed Trump as Jesus, as a superhero, or clad in medieval armour, with underlying Biblical references to a coming apocalypse in which he will defeat the forces of evil.
Overall, the coronavirus pandemic appears to function as an important conduit for all such messaging, with QAnon acting as a rallying flag for discontent among far-right European movements.
Measuring the toxicity of tweets
We used Textgain’s hate-speech detection tools to assess toxicity. Tweets written in English had a high level of antisemitism. In particular, they targeted public figures such as Jewish-American billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, or revived old conspiracies about secret Jewish plots for world domination. Soros was also a popular target in other languages.
We also found a highly polarised debate around the coronavirus public health measures employed in Germany, often using Third Reich rhetoric.
New language to express negative sentiments was coined and then adopted by others — in particular, pejorative terms for face masks and slurs directed at political leaders and others who wore masks.
Accompanying memes ridiculed political leaders, displaying them as alien reptilian overlords or antagonists from popular movies, such as Star Wars Sith Lords and the cyborg from The Terminator.
Most of the QAnon profiles tap into the same sources of information: Trump tweets, YouTube disinformation videos and each other’s tweets. It forms a mutually reinforcing confirmation bias — the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms prior beliefs or values.
Where does it end?
Harvesting discontent has always been a powerful political tool. In a digital world this is more true than ever.
By mid 2020, Donald Trump had six times more followers on Twitter than when he was elected. Until he was suspended from the platform, his daily barrage of tweets found a ready audience in ultra-right groups in the US who helped his misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric jump the Atlantic to Europe.
Social media platforms have since attempted to reduce the spread of QAnon. In July 2020, Twitter suspended 7,000 QAnon-related accounts. In August, Facebook deleted over 790 groups and restricted the accounts of hundreds of others, along with thousands of Instagram accounts.
But further Textgain analysis of 50,000 QAnon tweets posted in December and January showed toxicity had almost doubled, including 750 tweets inciting political violence and 500 inciting violence against Jewish people.
Those tweets were being systematically removed by Twitter. But calls for violence ahead of the January 20 inauguration continued to proliferate, Trump’s QAnon supporters appearing as committed and vocal as ever.
The challenge for both the Biden administration and the social media platforms themselves is clear. But our analysis suggests any solution will require a coordinated international effort.
At 4am Thursday AEDT, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as president and vice president of the United States, replacing Donald Trump and Mike Pence. What follows is a discussion of US political events over the past two weeks.
On January 5, Democrats won the two Georgia Senate runoffs. Raphael Warnock (D) defeated Kelly Loeffler (R) by 2.0%, and Jon Ossoff (D) defeated David Perdue (R) by 1.2%.
After November’s elections, Republicans held a 50-48 Senate lead, so these results enabled Democrats to tie the Senate at 50-50, with Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote. Democrats gained a net three Senate seats from the pre-November Senate.
On January 6, pro-Trump rioters stormed Congress as it met to certify Biden’s Electoral College victory. The rioters were clearly influenced by Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. Despite the riots and the courts’ resounding rejections of Trump’s claims, two state certifications were contested: Pennsylvania, which Biden won by 1.2% and Arizona (Biden by 0.3%).
Seven Republican senators out of 51 objected to Pennsylvania’s certification, as did 138 Republicans in the House of Representatives, with smaller numbers objecting to Arizona. The House objectors included House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
Just 64 House Republicans opposed the objection, so of those who cast a Yes/No vote on objecting to Pennsylvania, 68% supported the objection. Democrats were unanimously opposed.
It is not just Trump or the rioters, but also these Republicans in Congress who objected to the certifications on baseless election fraud claims who deserve to be condemned for anti-democratic behaviour.
I had two articles for The Poll Bludger about Georgia and the anti-democratic nuttiness of Trump and Republicans. The first was a preview, while the second was a live blog on the Georgia results and the events in Congress the next day.
In response to the riots, on January 13 the Democrat-controlled House impeached Trump for the second time by a 232-197 margin. All Democrats and ten Republicans supported impeachment. It requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict. Trump’s Senate trial will not start until after he leaves office.
Since the riots, social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have blocked Trump’s accounts. But for two months after the election result was called by the media, Trump was able to use his Twitter account to rant that the election was stolen from him.
It is not surprising Trump’s supporters believe him: in a recent poll for the US ABC News and the Washington Post, over 70% of Republicans do not believe Biden was legitimately elected.
In the wake of the riots, Trump’s ratings have slumped. In the FiveThirtyEight aggregate, 38.5% approve of Trump’s performance and 57.9% disapprove, for a net approval of -19.4%. His net approval has dropped nine points since the riots. Trump’s net approval is his worst since December 2017.
FiveThirtyEight has charts of presidential approval since Harry Truman (president from 1945-53). Two previous presidents (Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy) did not reach Trump’s four years as president. Of those who had at least four years, Trump’s final net approval is worse than all except Jimmy Carter at this point in their terms.
In a Marist poll, 47% thought Trump would be remembered as one of the worst presidents, while 16% thought he would be remembered as one of the best.
Detailed US election report
After results are finalised, I have published a detailed report on every US presidential election since 2008. My 2008 and 2012 reports are at The Green Papers here and here, and my 2016 report is at The Conversation. My 2016 report had a massive surge in views in October and November last year.
My 2020 election report, published December 11, is at The Poll Bludger. Here are the highlights:
Biden won the Electoral College by 306 to 232, but he only won the tipping-point state (Wisconsin) by 0.6%. The tipping-point state is the state that puts the winning candidate over the magic 270 Electoral Votes needed to win.
Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5% or just over 7 million votes. So the tipping-point state was 3.9% more pro-Trump than the popular vote.
Trump’s vote held up well with the non-University educated whites who had given him his upset 2016 win. Biden owed his Electoral College victory to gains in the suburbs, where there is a higher amount of university education.
Trump improved greatly from 2016 with Hispanics, leading to large swings in his favour in diverse places like Miami-Dade county, Florida and New York City.
There was disappointment for Democrats relative to expectations in Congressional races, although the Georgia runoff results have improved this.