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Republicans and Democrats contemplate a future without Donald Trump

Let's assume you have spent at least a few minutes this week thinking about former President Donald Trump or something he has said or done. So ask yourself: Did anything seem different? Was it the same thought process with the same attitude as when you thought of him, say, two weeks ago?

You may not have noticed any difference. Or it may seem too subtle to measure or describe. Trump has been such an enormous force and phenomenon on our political landscape that a small change in his salience or trajectory may not be perceptible right away. Both have evolved over time and continue to evolve.

If, on the other hand, you sensed something in the air, it may have been more than the belated arrival of autumn after the summer's lingering heat.

Consider this: November brought the first election in six years that was neither directly nor indirectly a referendum on Donald Trump. The big story of the night was Virginia and the huge rural and Republican turnout for businessman Glenn Youngkin, who, after the GOP primary, had done all he decently could to separate himself from the former president and run on his own.

Trump immediately attributed the victory to "my base," and indeed most of Youngkin's voters had surely been Trump's voters first. But this month, they turned out for another, distinctly different model of Republicanism — and Trump's minimal involvement did not seem to matter that much.

What's more, Youngkin won because he far exceeded Trump's showing in the pivotal Virginia suburbs where Democrats had been dominating in recent elections at all levels.

In New Jersey, Democratic turnout was nothing short of embarrassing and the incumbent governor, Phil Murphy, nearly lost. Republican turnout was dandy, especially outside the urban-suburban corridor from metro Philadelphia to metro New York.

But here again, Trump had not been a major factor in the race, despite being a frequent presence in the state that is home to his Bedminster golf club. Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican who nearly won, had spoken at a "Stop the Steal" rally in 2020. But in June, he billed himself as "an Abraham Lincoln Republican" after defeating two primary rivals who ran on Trump's false claims about the 2020 election.

In short, both parties were left to contemplate how well Republicans ran without Trump being either on the ballot or in office, while Democrats found it hard to hold the gains they had been making in the suburbs in the Trump years. Those gains had been the key to the Democrats' capturing the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020.

It does not take much imagination to add that the suburbs are likely to be the key battleground again next year, when the stakes will be control of the House and Senate and 36 governorships.

The New Jersey result also prompted a crack from the Garden State's last Republican governor, Chris Christie. A presidential candidate himself in 2016, and considered by some a prospect for 2024, Christie couldn't resist noting that he had been reelected as New Jersey's governor (in 2013) with "60% of the vote" whereas when Trump sought a second term, "he lost to Joe Biden."

One might have expected more sympathy from Christie, whose long history with Trump included prepping him for the debates with then-candidate Biden in the fall of 2020.

Putting a number to the "Trump years"

None of this should be interpreted to mean the period of "the Trump years" is approaching an end. For all we know, it has not yet reached its halfway point.

But the era has been nothing if not dynamic, with big swings up and down for the former president's popularity while he was in office and since. And while his approval sank to its all-time low (34%) in the Gallup Poll after the Jan. 6 rioters breached the Capitol, Trump has nevertheless defended that incident in his recent statements.

Just this week he released a statement saying: "The real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th – which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results."

As has often been his pattern, Trump does not dispute facts, he substitutes a complete counterfactual scenario (once famously described as "alternative facts") that he prefers to reality.

In this most recent instance, he was responding to the flurry of subpoenas issued by the House panel investigating the events of Jan. 6 and their connection to Trump's White House. The subpoenas cover many of Trump's inner circle, including his last chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and Trump's 2016 campaign strategist Steve Bannon — both of whom have already refused to comply. On Friday, Bannon was indicted by a federal grand jury for contempt of Congress.

Whatever the committee may eventually find and report, a lengthy process that highlights a parade of non-cooperative witnesses who defy lawful subpoenas does not convey an impression of innocence.

There is no question that the former president remains the leading figure in the Republican Party, and arguably the most dominant personality on the American political stage. His only rival in that regard is the current president of the United States, who does not seem interested in competing for "most dominant personality" — and that is putting it mildly.

With 26 months to go before the 2024 primaries begin, there is consensus that if Trump chooses to run again he will "clear the field" and reclaim his party's presidential nomination. At this moment, the party's nomination appears to be up to him — not the party.

But one message to emerge from this month's developments is that not all Republicans are accepting the current terms of their marriage to the former president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged Trump to stay out of the party's primaries in 2022. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has defied the former president (whom she had voted to remove from office in the second impeachment trial) by running for reelection despite his decrees against her.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the Republicans' Senate campaign committee for 2022, has indicated the party should focus on economic issues, education concerns and Biden's travails. When asked about Trump's insistence on having GOP candidates in 2022 promote his claims about 2020, Scott says, "Americans are focused on the future" and adds: "We're not going to talk about the last election."

On the same day as Scott's interview, Axios co-founder Jim VandeHei, published a piece reporting on Republicans who were "slowly but surely charting a post-Trump ideology and platform."

These are, for now, straws in the wind. Among those he calls "my base," Trump remains the Alpha Male he has always cast himself to be.

No one commands his legions quite the way he does.

All acknowledge he brought new energy and millions of new voters to the Republican cause. He largely remade the federal judiciary in the image of the conservative Federalist Society. He cut taxes.

But he also lost the House, the Senate and the White House in the course of just one term. No president in either party had done that after such a short time in office since Herbert Hoover did so nearly a century ago.

Moreover, in the next year, as Youngkin goes from "new kid in town" to "favorite get" for conservative media and the adjudication of Jan. 6 drags on everywhere else, Rick Scott's advice for his party's candidates is likely to look better and better.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.