Donald Trump remains the Republican frontrunner despite an array of legal challenges -- including indictments, criminal investigations and a sexual assault lawsuit loss -- and political scientists are still trying to figure out how he survives those substantial challenges.
The celebrity businessman and former reality TV star carried out what appeared to be a “hostile takeover” of the GOP in 2016, but his control over the party seems to grow in spite of his personal problems and the down-ballot losses he has presided over, wrote political scientist Julia Azari in a new column for Politico.
"For years, political scientists have judged presidents on their strength as party leaders — how they’ve been able to grow a coalition and cement a majority — but Trump is changing the way we think about politics," wrote Azari, a professor of political science at Marquette University.
"Instead, it now seems that Trump is not so much a party leader, but a movement figure," she added. "This might seem like the kind of distinction that only academics care about. But it’s key to understanding the current state of American politics, and the dilemmas now facing GOP leaders as the MAGA movement threatens to completely overtake the Republican Party itself."
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True believers seek fundamental change, while parties and presidents tend to be cautious, but Trump has upended that dynamic in the Republican Party.
"While not completely severing the relationship between party and president, Trump largely ignored the party’s needs, both electorally and legislatively," Azari wrote. "Instead, he focused on building his own movement within the party. That made him a different kind of president."
Trump's third presidential campaign is more focused than ever on personal grievance, and other Republicans have embraced that perspective instead of working to build a coalition, and Azari sees several possibilities ahead.
"The alliance between mainstream Republicans and the MAGA movement could reach a breaking point, with election deniers and extreme candidates repeatedly costing the party elections until the GOP ultimately jettisons the far-right," she wrote. "Second, the movement could fuel an across-the-board shift in party priorities; House GOP politics since January suggest there may be something to this, with MAGA Republicans exacting major concessions from Speaker Kevin McCarthy in order for him to hold power."
"A third possibility is that Congress and the parties — institutions designed to represent a wide swath of interests to act collectively — could simply become less relevant as the relationship between presidents and movements becomes closer, especially on the GOP side," Azari added. "If movements can gain direct access to the White House and promise voter mobilization in return, then these other institutions might wither even more."
Trump has already shown what a movement leader can deliver as president, if he doesn't care about his own legacy or the long-term preservation of democratic norms.
"Less may get done legislatively, but the tools of the executive branch can deliver plenty that a movement demands: the right rhetoric, executive orders and judicial appointments," Azari concluded. "That’s particularly true for a movement that prioritizes things like tightening immigration restrictions. And as the strength of the MAGA movement holds firm, there may be few Trump skeptics in the GOP left to object."