President Trump will leave office Wednesday as the undisputed head of the Republican Party despite the events of the past two weeks. Most pundits think he will continue his hold over the party’s voters well into the future. Don’t bet on it.
Trump’s dominance has been based on two factors: his stunning ability to dominate the news cycle and his advocacy of issues and concerns that other Republican leaders had neglected. Both factors contributed to his meteoric rise in 2016, and his election meant it was impossible to ignore him. Everything a president says is newsworthy, and Trump manipulated that for all it was worth. For 5½ years, almost every political news cycle started with what Trump said or did, or with what was to be done to stop him. That, plus his canny ability to co-opt nearly every orthodox Republican faction and make himself their champion, gave no room for other potential leaders to make their mark.
Being out of office, however, will deprive Trump of his bully pulpit. Networks and reporters no longer have to cover his every word, and many will likely not do so. There will be those on the right who do, especially the networks and outlets that are trying to supplant dominant rivals such as Fox News. But even then, there will be competition for political news from the Biden administration and other events in Washington. Trump can comment on those, and his comments may be covered initially. But he will no longer be able to shape the news with his every breath, and that alone gives other Republicans space to enter the field.