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Voices: Could ‘silent’ anti-Trump Republicans block his path back to the White House?

In key early primaries, the turnout for Trump has been lower than pollsters’ had expected (PA Archive)
In key early primaries, the turnout for Trump has been lower than pollsters’ had expected (PA Archive)

One of the most startling impressions from the past week has been the extent to which it now seems to be accepted, on both sides of the Atlantic, that Donald Trump is certain to be the Republican nominee for president – and almost as certain to be back in the White House this time next year. A reasonable response to all this certainty might be: “Steady on…”

It is true that Trump has so far enjoyed one of the smoothest rides to a presidential nomination on the part of any challenger in recent memory. Nikki Haley, his only rival after the Iowa caucuses, won only two contests, in Vermont and Washington DC, before suspending her campaign. She even lost in her home state of South Carolina, where she had been governor, which was hardly a promising prelude to a presidential run. She leaves Trump now with a clear run to become the Republican Party’s nominee.

Trump’s campaign was also given an unexpected boost – unexpected by timing rather than content – when the Supreme Court upheld his appeal against being excluded from primary contests in individual states. The ruling, which was handed down on the day before so-called Super Tuesday, with primaries in 15 states and one territory, was unanimous. The specific state concerned in the case was Colorado, but Maine had followed in announcing a ban on Trump contesting its primary, and other states had been expected to follow suit.

The court ruled that only Congress could decide on a federal election matter, and the three liberal judges, who might perhaps have looked for reasons not to support Trump, explained their agreement by arguing – quite rightly – that the effect of not doing this could be “a chaotic, state-by-state patchwork at odds with our nation’s federalism principles”. There are now moves afoot to secure Congressional consideration of the issue, but any measure would seem highly unlikely to pass, given the balance of votes in Congress and the proximity of the election.

Where there are caveats about Trump’s chances of winning either the nomination or the presidency – as opposed to misgivings about another Trump presidency, which is a whole different thing – they come mostly from political cognoscenti and fine-print psephologists. The particular caveats tend also to be the mirror image of those heard in past campaigns.

Before the 2016 and 2020 elections, the warning was of pollsters’ miscalculations, because at least some Trump supporters could be fearful of expressing their allegiance in public. This time around, the warnings are about underestimating the number of “silent” or “secret non-Trump Republicans”, who must now choose where to go if there is indeed a Trump-Biden rematch in November.

They might have voted for Haley in the primaries, or they might have stayed at home. It has been noted that in some states, including Iowa, Texas and North Carolina, either the turnout or the vote for Trump was lower than expected, and the gap with Haley not as wide. Is this a harbinger of what might be to come?

Assuming Trump is the Republican nominee in November, and Biden the Democrat, non-Trump Republicans will have to choose between forsaking their party or abstaining. How many of them there are, what might persuade them to vote for the opposition, and how many might not vote at all, are set to be the big questions for pollsters and campaign teams in the months ahead.

This is not to say, though, that there is nothing to stop Trump’s presidential candidacy before it gets that far. But the Supreme Court will probably not be the institution to do it. The court’s ruling against states keeping a candidate off the primary ballot paper has been widely seen as a strong hint that it will also rule in Trump’s favour in the matter of presidential immunity.

Insurrection is the only offence for which someone can be barred under the Constitution, which is why Trump’s opponents are so keen to have the Capitol riot of 6 January 2021 declared an insurrection and see Trump prosecuted for it. Trump insists, however, that he was still president at the time, and therefore enjoyed immunity from court prosecution. If the Supreme Court agrees, then his bid for the presidency will go on.

The timetable is also against the immunity argument halting Trump’s progress to the White House. The Supreme Court is due to start hearings on 25 April, which makes it unlikely that any of the other cases currently pending against Trump can be decided much before the party convention in the summer or the election itself on 5 November. As he did as president, Trump is testing the US Constitution to its limits.

Even if some of the court cases Trump faces – which encompass several civil lawsuits, as well as four criminal cases, including the Capitol riot and “hush” money allegedly paid to the actress and director, Stormy Daniels – were to be concluded before the election, there is nothing, constitutionally, that would prevent him being elected or exercising his office from prison.

That’s the theory, at least – however great the incredulity at such a prospect on this side of the Atlantic. What is more, Trump supporters seem unperturbed by the prospect of voting for a convicted criminal; indeed, they regard the charges against him and the prospect of prison as further evidence of what they already think they know: that the system is stacked against people like them, and people like Trump – a belief that only solidifies their support.

If Trump is not going to be stopped by the courts, is there anything that might yet block his way to the election, and ultimately to the presidency? One obstacle might develop from the hints, as yet tiny hints, that there is a quiet Republican backlash against him, that it is bigger and more widespread than currently appears, and that it could grow.

An analysis of “non-Trump Republicans”, set out by The Wall Street Journal, points out that this group tends to be more highly educated, better off, more hostile to the idea of law-breaking and more condemning of the Capitol riots than Trump supporters.

If this group is underestimated, or if it is put off by the proliferating court cases against Trump, then perhaps it could precipitate an open split in the Republican Party, which could present another block – or at least complicate Trump’s presidential run. There is little sign of such a schism yet, but it is six months to the conventions, and a lot could happen in that time.

A third possible obstacle could be termed “the Biden factor”, which could take several forms. What if Biden is persuaded, or forced, to abandon his campaign for re-election? How would Trump match up against another Democrat? Or what if Biden fights a stronger campaign than appears likely, then Trump will also have to raise his game. He has already challenged Biden to debates, presuming his own position of strength, but that could change.

US voters may get some idea of these possibilities from Biden’s State of the Union address. His own recent statements suggest that he has no intention of being written off just yet. And he did beat Trump in 2020.