But how soon? And in what form?
These questions prompted much speculative chatter Tuesday, after The Wall Street Journal published a short, anonymously sourced article stating that "Trump has talked in recent days with associates about forming a new political party," to be named the Patriot Party.
If serious (always a critical "if" with Trump), the former president's trial balloon has the potential to disrupt America's two-party balance in the most significant way since the Kansas-Nebraska Act split the Whigs in 1854, helping give rise to the Republican Party.
If the 45th president takes his ball and goes home, he won't be alone. While Trump's public approval has consistently been the lowest of any modern president—and closed with a thud—it remains high among Republicans: 79 percent, according to a January 15–17 Morning Consult poll. His average GOP approval rating during the past four years was a record-tying 88 percent, per Gallup. (Among Democrats, it was a record-shattering low of 7 percent.) Until further notice, he remains the most popular figure in the party. A January 15–18 Civiqs poll showed that Trump voters, by a two-to-one margin, preferred characterizing themselves as "Trump supporters" rather than Republican Party supporters.
Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) warned on Fox News last Friday that if GOP senators vote to convict Trump of impeachment, "it'll destroy the party. A third of the Republicans will leave." If so, that would likely include elected officials. Remember that just under half the GOP's congressional delegation voted on January 6—even after the violent siege of their workplace—against certifying Joe Biden's Electoral College victory, even though the theories behind their objections had been serially debunked, including by a number of Trump-appointed judges.
So the raw material for a Trumpian defection is there. But could he really do it? I see four main obstacles, beginning with the man himself:
1. It takes a lot of thankless, expensive drudgery without an immediate, flashy payoff. Not exactly what you'd expect from a leisure-loving 74-year-old corner-cutter who isn't exactly known for his lengthy attention span.
"At the risk of understatement," says Libertarian Party Chair Joe Bishop-Henchman, "starting a new political party is very hard. It requires a lot of money, a lot of work, a lot of volunteers. We'll see, but it's very difficult to do."
Aside from the ballot-access hurdles (on which more below), there is an important fundraising bottleneck at the beginning of a new party's life: The incumbents, including minor parties, that have "national committees" as recognized by the Federal Elections Commissions (FEC), are able to accept donations at $35,000 a pop. Individual campaigns along the lines of a prospective Trump 2024? Just $5,000.
And here's the catch about graduating to the big boys' fundraising club: The FEC won't grant national committee status until a political party holds a national convention, establishes national headquarters, sets up state party committees, and has a "sufficient number of party-designated federal candidates on the ballot in a sufficient number of states in different geographic areas." In other words, the Patriot Party better get cranking right now to compete in a whole bunch of 2022 House and Senate races; in the meantime, the candidates and the party will have to either self-finance (never a Trump specialty) or collect donations at a fraction of their competitors' size for a minimum of two years.
"You almost have to through an election cycle before you get that qualification," says Constitution Party Chair James Clymer, citing Ross Perot's experience self-financing his independent run in 1992 before forming the Reform Party. "The first time around, unless you have somebody who's willing to spend their own money in a big way, it makes it much more difficult to establish."
Trump? Willing to spend his own money in a big way? On other people?
The Constitution Party, founded in 1990 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party, already has a national committee, and it was on the ballot last year in more states (17) than hip hop billionaire Kanye West. But the party's ballot access, membership, and vote totals are all trending downward, and its 8th place 2020 presidential nominee, Don Blankenship, is more known for being the coal executive ex-con who coined the nickname "Cocaine Mitch" for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) than he is for competing against Joe Biden.
So it's little wonder that the right-of-center, tough-on-immigration party is flirting openly with Trump's not-quite-existent Patriots. "We would like to join forces with them, if that's possible, one way or the other," Clymer says. "I talked with some other people that are part of that, and…we're exploring what possibilities there may be to work in some kind of alliance with them. But this is all very much in the preliminary stages."
2. Americans are third-partiers in the streets, duopolists in the sheets. "Majority in U.S. Still Say a Third Party Is Needed," went the headline over a Gallup poll in October 2018. Two weeks later in the midterm elections, third-party and independent candidates got smoked.
Pre-election polls persistently overcount third-party support by about a third, with many third-curious voters retreating to old habits in the polling booth. Over the past century, nontraditional presidential candidates have exceeded 15 percent of the vote—the minimum polling threshold to get into the duopoly-gatekept presidential debates—just twice: Progressive Robert La Follette's 16.6 percent in 1924, and Perot's 18.9 percent in 1992. Neither were within even 12 percentage points of second place.
The Trump political brand relies heavily on the concept of "winning." He just lost by seven million votes nationwide—and if he bolts the GOP, he'll split that coalition in two. Even given the unusual turbulence of contemporary politics, that does not seem like a formula for first place. Which would be hard for an ego that large to accept. But Trump wouldn't be the only politician facing a gut-check.
3. Ballot access is a huge pain for third parties in non-presidential races. Trump could pretty easily (if expensively) get on most or all ballots in 2024, but GOP defectors who came along would be faced with roadblocks they've never before encountered.
"Here's the most extreme example," says Richard Winger, editor of the indispensable third-party newsletter Ballot Access News. "The Georgia ballot access law for independent candidates and minor parties for the U.S. House was passed in 1943. So it's 77 years old, and in 77 years no minor party has ever been able to get on the ballot for U.S. House in Georgia if it's a regularly scheduled election." (There are lawsuits pending.)
So while one could easily imagine Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.), a woman with a history of QAnon enthusiasm and Parkland massacre false-flaggism who has vowed to impeach Joe Biden, following her president out of the GOP, Greene would as the law stands likely not be able to run for re-election. Elected politicians generall prefer not to volunteer for unemployment.
"It's a mistake for anyone to think of ballot access as a package," Winger says. "It is radically different for president than it is for…offices like U.S. House and state legislature. For president, it's far easier. That's why you see the Libertarian Party four times has got its presidential nominee on the ballot in all jurisdictions, yet typically, you only see a fifth or a fourth of the U.S. House seats with a Libertarian running, maybe 5 percent of the state legislative seats up with Libertarians running….But for president, except for Texas and California, there's no really, really hard state."
To achieve national committee status, and thus lower the burn rate of initial cash necessary to build a viable electoral apparatus, the Patriot Party would have to convince a significant number of Republican elected officials to jump into a fundraising and ballot-access climate harsher than they've ever contemplated.
Would one-third of the elected GOP take that bet? I'll take the under, unless they go the merger route. But that way has its own challenges.
4. Taking over an existing third party requires you to…take over an existing third party. These are not mere empty vessels parked outside major-party national conventions with the engine running. They tend to be collections of idiosyncratic cusses who have painstakingly if shambolically crafted specific political organizations and cultures. Transplants are far from guaranteed to be absorbed by the host.
Who could the Patriots merge with? You can safely scratch off the left-wing parties: the Greens (fourth place for president in 2020), the Party for Socialism & Liberation (in sixth place), and all the scraggly groupings on a state ballot or two with "Socialist" or "Progressive" in the title. Kanye's Birthday Party (seventh) doesn't look built to last, and Brock Pierce (ninth) is an independent building something rather non-Trumpy.
Among the top 10 finishers in 2020, that leaves just four potential M&A targets for Team Trump: the aforementioned Constitution Party, the Libertarian Party (in third place for a third consecutive presidential election), the Alliance Party (sixth), and the American Solidarity Party (10th). Taking those in reverse order:
The American Solidarity Party (ASP) first attracted my attention in October when The American Conservative published its pre-election symposium of staff voting intentions, and three writers (Rod Dreher, Gracy Olmstead, and Howard Ahmanson) backed ASP nominee Brian Carroll. "When I read the platform of the ASP, I found that I didn't agree with everything," Dreher explained, "but the overwhelming majority of its pro-family, Christian Democratic (in the European sense) policies I could endorse."
The American Conservative was co-founded by Pat Buchanan, and Buchananite paleoconservatism is widely understood as the intellectual and ideological forerunner to Trumpism. (At least its modern variant—when Trump briefly ran against Buchanan for the 2000 Reform Party nomination, he pronounced Pitchfork Pat's views "prehistoric.") So could the Transitive Property of Paleos apply to the ASP?
Not so fast, explains American Solidary Party Chair Skylar Covich.
"One of our big concerns is Trump's rhetoric. That's what got a lot of members interested in the party," Covich says. (The party was incorporated in 2016, attracting a lot of never-Trump Republicans and pro-life Democrats.) "There are also concerns about Trump's immigration policy, all of what went on with the detention camps at the border and the kids in cages, that sort of thing….We want to have the mindset of being welcoming and humane toward immigrants, and providing a path to citizenship." Sounds like a nonstarter.
I'm not sure many people could pick out the Alliance Party in a police lineup. Its 2020 presidential nominee, perennial candidate Rocky De La Fuente, has in the past five years run for at least five elected offices for at least five different political parties (Democratic, American Delta, Reform, Republican, and now Alliance, in roughly that order). De La Fuente has also secured the Reform Party nomination the past two presidential elections, in case you're wondering where Perotism went.
Alliance thus far is an amalgamation of independent minor parties pushing centrist mush and succeeding mostly in obtaining modest ballot access (15 states) for an ideologically promiscuous serial presidential candidate. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) It's hard to visualize Planet Trump signing onto a platform warning about gun violence and "the existential threat of climate change," but then, it's hard to imagine more than a very small number of people knowing what the Alliance Party stands for in the first place.
Odds of a Patriot merger? Not high.
How about the political party that came in third place in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, that received a whopping 70 percent of the non-duopoly vote, whose members tend to share Trump's sporadic rhetorical distaste of "endless wars" and the "Deep State," and whose presidential nominations merely require achieving a 50 percent delegate vote in a national convention?
Well, the Libertarian Party is basically having its biggest January in years, says Bishop-Henchman. And not because of disaffected Trump supporters.
"We were out very quickly and very strongly denouncing what those people were doing at the Capitol," Bishop-Henchman says. "My phone's been nonstop since the Capitol from people who used to be in the Libertarian Party and quit it because they thought it wasn't going anywhere. They're coming back. A lot of people who are like, "I was holding out hope for the Republican Party, but I mean, the Trumpists control it."
So the anti-RINO faction isn't turning toward the Libertarians?
"I'm not really seeing that," he says. "I mean, Trump still has a 60 percent approval rating from the Republicans. If he were to run again, I think he'd still win the primary. The GOP's very much where Trumpists are still nowadays."
Aside from having all sorts of MAGA-incompatible planks in the party platform, the Libertarian Party right now would have some extra inhospitality due to Trump's final hours in office, when he declined to extend libertarian-favored clemency for Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Reality Winner, and Ross Ulbricht.
As for some kind of infiltration or hostile takeover? "I think the Libertarian Party is pretty well protected," says Richard Winger. "It's age, partly. I mean, being over 50 years old, it has such strong traditions and a consistent policy of stances on the issues; it's really soaked in." You also can't exactly waltz into the party and immediately become a state delegate to the national convention. "There's rules," he said. "I mean, Libertarians have thought about this for a long time."
That leaves the Constitution Party as the most likely—and most willing—merger partner.
"I look very much at policy, and what he has done, we would be an agreement with 95 percent of that, I believe," party chair Clymer says. "I think we're certainly close enough that it would be a very good fit for both of us."
Perusing the party principles and policies, there are indeed many overlaps, "whether it's border security, America first, populism…trade," Clymer says. Might be a snag or two in the party's foundational emphasis on "integrity" ("We are committed to restoring honesty, integrity, and accountability to government"). Then there's the whole "Constitution" part, which has never been Trump's strong suit.
But Clymer takes the hopeful view.
"I don't know that Trump himself, and I don't of the other people who follow him—I don't know that they're quite as grounded in the Constitution itself and…constitutional principles as what the Constitution Party is," he acknowledges. "But some of it I think may be just education and understanding."
Winger for one sees a possible fit.
"There's quite a few Constitution Party units that are on the ballot where it's rather difficult to get on," he says. "They're an asset."
Ultimately, the biggest determinant of whether Trump bolts, aside from his own energy for the project, may be whether he even has to. Most of the Republican Party's machinery remains in solidly loyalist hands.
Ronna McDaniel was unanimously re-elected to head the party just two weeks ago. The presidential re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee in 2018 effectively (and unprecedentedly) merged, installing Trumpists atop almost all state parties, cancelling contested primary elections, and not even bothering to produce a new party platform in 2020. Such is Trump's continuing pull that one of the safest jobs in politics—Mitch McConnell's control of the Senate Republican caucus—may be in jeopardy if the minority leader chooses to back impeachment.
Trump may be gone from the White House, but his potential ability to shape the landscape of two-party politics, and now third-party jockeying, remains high.
"In a few months, we'll have a much better sense of what's happening with these parties," former Libertarian congressman Justin Amash tells me. "Everything is in flux right now."
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