But is this kind of appeal adaptable to a world where Trump himself cannot legally hold power any more? Some adaptation is imaginable: The Q realm can doubtless spin stories where Trump is secretly the president, or where he has ascended to a higher plane of power, governing as a pantocrator for whom the presidency would be a demotion. And one can imagine more grounded scenarios in which voting for members of his family is interpreted as a way to let him rule from exile, with a Trump son or daughter playing the role that Lurleen Wallace played for George Wallace when he was term-limited out of the Alabama governor’s mansion and she got elected in his place.
That kind of scenario, though, demands a level of Machiavellianism that Trump has — at best — inconsistently displayed, and a willingness to publicly subordinate himself and build up others that he has almost never shown. Does Trump actually want an heir, a successor to whom his legacy belongs? (Ask Mike Pence.) Does he want to live in a world where a son he used to disfavor — to say nothing of someone who isn’t his flesh and blood — is nominated for president instead of him?
At the very least, we can say that the inability to hold power himself would weaken some of Trump’s appeal to some of his supporters, and also weaken some of his own appetite for the political fray. If he intends to remain a dominant figure in the Republican Party, being banned from high office would require more adaptation from the soon-to-be ex-president, more creativity, more institutional exertion — all tougher “asks” for a septuagenarian than just running another primary campaign.
And, of course, the ban will definitively make it impossible for him to rule the Republican Party from inside the White House again, to combine popular power with institutional power (however weakly exercised) as he has these last four years.
Whereas as much as Republicans want to believe in the “just fade away” narrative, if Trump can be the nominee in 2024, he really might be, and even the shadow of that possibility will shape and warp the G.O.P. effort to leave the events of Jan. 6 behind.
What McConnell has before him, then, is an opportunity to exert agency, to wield power, that is entirely unique to early 2021, and will be long gone by 2024. There is no guarantee that using it will work, but at a moment when every Republican scenario looks bad, it seems more likely to leave Trump weakened than just doing nothing and hoping that some kind of wasting disease will carry his political potency away.
My expectation is that the lure of doing nothing and hoping for the best will still prevail, as it has for Republicans so often in this era. But there is a chance, at least, that a man who understands institutional power so well will see the opportunity before him, the chance to actually prevail over Trump and not just manage and contain him — and for all of our sake, take it.
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