Trump will remain GOP force even after two impeachments and an insurrection, SoCal political scientists say

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Unmasked Trump supporters brought signs and flags to a rally in downtown LA on Jan. 6, 2021, the day insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Ted Soqui for KCRW.

Just about a year after the first impeachment of President Trump, now it’s happened for an unprecedented second time. 

California has been the so-called “heart of the resistance” from day one of the Trump administration, but some local legislators let loose when making their cases against the president on the House floor.

“Since his first day in office, this president has spent four years abusing his power, lying, embracing authoritarianism, radicalizing his supporters against democracy,” blasted Representative Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

“He needed to say only two words to end the violence, ‘I concede,’ because that’s what leaders do in a democracy, because that’s what we do in the United States,” said a clearly angered Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands).

"He should serve not one minute more and be barred forever from public office,” thundered Mark Takano (D-Riverside). “He is toxic to our republic and toxic to our democracy!"

But while some of Trump’s most vocal critics call Southern California home, a contingent of supporters, apologists, and loyal enablers are also in the region. Case and point: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

While passions flared and partisan battle lines were clearly evident during debate over the one article of impeachment, the tone of some lawmakers changed. Republican Representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida and Jim Jordan of Ohio went all-in on being Trump’s bulldogs. But there was a seismic shift from McCarthy.

“Some say the riots were caused by antifa,” the minority leader said Wednesday while addressing the chamber. “There is absolutely no evidence of that. And conservatives should be the first to say so.”

He disavowed a false conspiracy theory pushed by Trump and some of his GOP colleagues.

But even as he changes his tune, Mark Martinez, the head of the political science department at Cal State Bakersfield — in McCarthy’s district — says McCarthy is taking heat for his actions over the last week or so.

“He’s finally starting to get some pushback,” Martinez says. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

He says McCarthy is in jeopardy like never before in spite of being the top-ranking Republican in the House and the party’s biggest cash cow. He brought in some $103 million to the GOP in the last election cycle, which is a record. 

Nevertheless, some of McCarthy’s constituents won’t be happy with his performance on the House floor. While speaking, he seemingly abandoned the president’s big “Stop the Steal” lie.

“What we saw last week was not the American way,” the minority leader said. “Neither is the continued rhetoric that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president. Let’s be clear: Joe Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States in one week because he won the election.”

That was a big turnaround for somebody who’s been one of the president’s most obsequious allies.

But political science professor Mark Martinez isn’t buying the late in the game change of heart.

“He’s still trying to have it both ways,” Martinez says. “He would like you to believe that he’s opposed to what’s been happening, but the thing is he’s been egging it on for the last four years. He’s been carrying Trump’s water, and people were fine with that as long as things didn’t blow up, and now that things have blown up, he’s trying to have it both ways.”

McCarthy isn’t alone on the tightrope he’s trying to walk. Several California Republicans are attempting the delicate maneuver of being a Trump loyalist while recalibrating based on recent events.

First-term GOP members of Congress Michelle Steel and Young Kim from Orange County flipped their districts from blue to red. And in Santa Clarita, Mike Garcia eked out a victory over Christy Smith by 333 votes.

Garcia ran on a pro-Trump platform. Before the insurrection, he vowed to oppose election results from multiple states. Even after the deadly attack on the Capitol, he did just that.

Lena Smyth, a political science professor at College of the Canyons in Garcia’s district, says that move is causing consternation among his constituents.

“I think he is getting a lot of criticism in the district,” says Smyth. “I mean, I think the challenge for any legislator in a purple district is they kind of get it from both sides.”

Even though registration in his district favors Democrats and Biden won it, Garcia’s found success riding the Trump train.

“He’s voted pretty similar to Kevin McCarthy and has kind of followed that line, which is interesting because he’s not in a safe Republican seat,” Smyth says. 

He’s just one Republican in a purple district, and thanks to a complex series of runoffs and elections, he’s had a little time in Washington D.C. The two freshmen representatives from Orange County, Young Kim and Michelle Steel, are completely new to Congress and are taking a different tack than Garcia.

All three voted against impeaching the president, but Kim said she favors a censure and believes impeachment is too divisive. Steel too thinks that with Trump having so little time left in office and things as fractious as they are, impeachment isn’t the right option.

That balance of opposing impeachment but still voicing displeasure with the president is a calculated move, according to Lena Smyth.

“That shows moderation to me,” the College of the Canyons political scientist says. “I feel like the party is trying to moderate back and trying to find kind of that middle ground. I think they’re trying to find a way to go halfway there but not all the way there, if that makes sense?”

Despite the insurrection and a second impeachment, Trump still has a lot of loyal followers, and the GOP remains aware that nothing seems to stick to him.

Ever since the campaign trail in 2016, many perceived dire moments had no effect on the president’s political fortunes. The Access Hollywood tape, Charlottesville, the Puerto Rico paper towel tossing incident, his first impeachment. Something about this feels different, but even after he lost the election, his allies remained steadfast.

Mark Martinez at Cal State Bakersfield says there’s a very real possibility that right-wing politics might still buy what the president is selling. 

“Trump, the name, right now is toxic,” according to Martinez. “But emerging out of this, one of the things I think everybody will give Trump credit for is that he has no problem rebranding or finding a way to remake himself. And so how he does that in the next three to six months is going to be very important.”

Lena Smyth in Santa Clarita agrees that Trump will be a lingering presence. In no small part, she says, because of his unshakable base of millions, but also because of the threat he poses to Republicans if he were to run as a third party candidate someday.

Locally, Smyth points out there’s a big unknown looming for all the members of Congress, including somebody like Mike Garcia who’s standing with Trump.

“The most significant thing that’s going to happen is redistricting,” Smyth says. “Mike Garcia’s in a district, to the north is Kevin McCarthy, to the south he’s got Tony Cardenas, which is a heavy Democrat district. So really, all of these votes, they matter in terms of his record when he’s going to run for reelection. But what seat is he even going to be running in?”

For tried and true commodities like Kevin McCarthy, redistricting really doesn’t pose a threat, but for representatives in purple districts, there’s no telling if their record will be enough to save them from entirely new groups of constituents.

And of course, it should be pointed out that the opposition party usually benefits in midterm elections, so looking ahead to 2022, that could help local Republicans.