Professor theorizes that Trump is a short-term movement leader instead of long-term political party head

 May 19, 2023

Though a lot can change over the coming year, former President Donald Trump currently appears poised to easily win the Republican Party's nomination to be president in the 2024 election.

However, the argument has been made that despite Trump's apparent continued dominance over the GOP, he actually isn't the leader of the Republican Party but rather heads up a movement that has arisen within and around that particular party, according to Politico.

If true, that presents a sort of nightmare scenario for Trump, as political movements have a historical tendency to come and go and be fickle about who will lead it, as compared to the more solid and enduring foundation of a political party established on certain principles instead of personalities.

Social movement leader vs. political party leader

The argument that former President Trump is actually the leader of the GOP-aligned MAGA movement rather than the GOP itself was recently put forward by Julia Azari, a professor of political science at Marquette University.

To be sure, Azari conceded that the Republican Party has adapted and evolved a great deal since 2016 to accommodate Trump and his MAGA movement, and noted that he still receives significant loyalty from not just the Republican base but also a majority of elected Republicans in Congress.

That said, there is also a non-trivial portion of the GOP that continues to largely reject Trump and Trumpism, and while some new voters have flowed into the Republican base under Trump, they are typically disaffected independents devoted to the man and not the party and are unable to entirely replace the larger number of voters who abandoned the party over their distaste for Trump and his often controversial behavior and statements.

That is evidenced, at least in part, by the rather disappointing electoral outcomes for Republicans more broadly in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections, in which the GOP appeared to underperform expectations in comparison to the overachievements of Democrats who seemingly expanded their base by encompassing all who stand opposed to Trump and his MAGA movement.

How might this play out going forward?

Having established the basis of her thesis that former President Trump is more of a short-term social movement leader instead of a long-term political party leader, Azari moved on in her Politico article to consider a few theories on how that distinction could ultimately play out in the coming months and years.

One possibility is that the mainstream Republican Party, finally tired of losing winnable elections with Trump-aligned candidates labeled as "extreme," could launch an effort to fully excise Trump and his most-devoted adherents from its circle, albeit at the risk of shrinking dramatically in size and power in the process.

Another possibility is essentially the opposite, in that the GOP could conversely push out the remaining dissidents against Trump and essentially rebrand itself as the MAGA Party, though that too would come with similar electoral consequences as the first option.

A third option, which is likely contingent upon Trump actually winning re-election to the White House in 2024 for a second term, would be a substantial strengthening and empowerment of the MAGA movement -- and an encouragement to other social movements on the left -- to simply sidestep the weakened and increasingly irrelevant political parties and Congress and focus instead on unilaterally governing through the executive branch with support from the judiciary.

Different polls lend support to all three possible outcomes

Of course, all of that is in theory and nothing is a given. Yet, some of the action in the polls over the past several months suggest there may be some basis to the idea.

In December 2022, Axios reported on a slew of new polls that showed Trump's support among GOP voters had slipped below the crucial 70 percent mark, which suggested that Republicans had grown tired of Trump and that Azari's first possibility could be in play. However, the New York Post reported in April 2023 that Trump's popularity had surged again following the perceived partisan criminal indictment in New York, which would seem to align with Azari's second possibility.

All of that said, as of now, the RealClearPolitics average of GOP primary polls shows that Trump retains a commanding lead over all actual and probable contenders for the Republican nomination, and assuming that he is then able to defeat President Joe Biden -- or whoever is ultimately the Democratic nominee -- in the general election, that could result in Azari's third possibility becoming something of a reality.

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