Anyone who remembers the 2016 presidential election knows it is too soon to write Donald Trump’s political obituary, but a recent crop of headlines illuminate a growing angst over the fate of the Republican party if, as polls currently suggest, he goes down to defeat in November.
Republican politicians are jostling for position with an eye on 2024. Never Trump activists are hoping to purge his brand of nativist demagoguery from the party. Authors and commentators are pondering whether a post-Trump Republican party should resemble the pre-Trump one or if it needs to start over.
Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, asked: “Where did Donald Trump come from? Where is the GOP going? Should the whole thing be burned down? ” Bret Stephens, a columnist at the New York Times, noted that if Trump loses, “the future of the party will be up for grabs. It’s time to start thinking about who can grab it, who should, and who will.”
The debate has been fueled by hints Trump’s current iron grip on the party might weaken. Republican leaders roundly rejected his idea of postponing the election because of the coronavirus pandemic. In negotiations over the latest economic stimulus package, they brushed aside his proposals for a payroll tax cut and a new FBI building.
Meanwhile Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, signaled to vulnerable Republican senators in tough election races that they can distance themselves from Trump if they deem it necessary, according to CNN.
But the prognostications remain guarded for two reasons. First, the election is far from over. Although Trump faces the headwinds of the pandemic, mass unemployment and historically weak poll numbers, he still has time to spring surprises against his opponent Joe Biden in this most unpredictable of campaigns.
Second, the end of Trump would not necessarily mean the end of Trumpism. Nine in 10 Republicans still approve of the job he is doing as president, according to Gallup. A SurveyMonkey poll for Axios last December showed Republican voters’ favourite picks for 2024 led by Mike Pence, with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr in second place, followed by Nikki Haley, Ivanka Trump, Marco Rubio and Mike Pompeo.
It may be too late to put the Trump genie back in the bottle. That is the view of Stuart Stevens, one of the party’s most successful campaign strategists, whose contribution to the burgeoning literature on its identity crisis is It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump.
“He is the Republican party. There’s not even like an opposition government in exile. There’s no De Gaulle; there’s just Vichy France. The party is the party that endorses Roy Moore [US senate candidate in Alabama accused of sexual misconduct] and attacks John Bolton [former national security adviser]. What we saw as a recessive gene in the party turned out to be a dominant gene,” Stevens said.
Stevens continued: “If you ever really want to get depressed, go read George Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the convention. It reads like a document from a lost civilisation. Who are these people? It’s like the Mayans. It’s all about humility and sacrifice and honor and service.”
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the Democratic strategist Paul Begala argued that a crushing defeat for Trump would be a catalyst for Republicans to reassess and revivify, just as Democrats did after three clarifying defeats in 1980, 1984 and 1988. But Stevens believes it will take more than one election.
“Trumpism itself has been deeply unleashed in the party and I think history tells us, darkly, that when a major party legitimizes hate, which the Republican party has, it’s very difficult to get it undone,” he said. “It takes time, often a lot of blood.”
Republicans’ core base – older white men – shrinks with every election cycle as America’s demographics diversify, while Trump has alienated many suburban voters. “The party has no desire to change. The only thing that will make the party want to change is utter fear. That’s never very convincing to voters because they see it as transparent. So I think we’re in for a period of centre-left government,” Stevens said.
The pandemic has provided a national stage for moderate Republican state governors such as Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Phil Scott of Vermont, all leaders of traditionally Democratic states and therefore seen as having potential crossover appeal. John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who ran in 2016, could mount another bid in 2024, seeking to cast Trump as an aberration that should never have happened.
But they are likely to face an uphill struggle against loyalists – potentially Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley or even the Fox News host Tucker Carlson – claiming to be Trump’s true heir. Haley, the ex-governor of South Carolina and Trump’s ex-ambassador to the UN, has been careful to distance herself from the president at some moments and hug his base at others.
An internal struggle may prove cathartic. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “You’re going to have a lot of Trumpers putting a Don Jr or a Tom Cotton forward and you’re going to have a lot of other folks putting a Kasich or Larry Hogan or whoever else may emerge in that space.
“So that’s the battle that lies ahead. We’re going to go through it and we have to go through it. It may mean the splintering of the party. It may mean the formation of something else. We don’t know exactly how Republicans will reassess and value what Republicanism is.”
Tensions have played out recently on Capitol Hill, where a third of the House’s 198 Republican members have been elected since 2016, most following Trump’s agenda. Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of the former vice-president Dick Cheney, strongly supports Trump on some issues but has criticized him on foreign policy and the pandemic, prompting calls for her to resign as the No 3 House Republican.
Michael Steel, a former aide to John Boehner when he was House speaker, suggested that this offers a preview of how pro-Trump Republicans will seek to rationalise election defeat: by scapegoating factions of the party that were insufficiently loyal. “They need to be able to blame anyone and anything other than President Trump himself, so they are creating a straw man argument that he is being stabbed in the back by a fifth column of disloyal Republicans rather than by his own words and actions,” Steel wrote in the Dispatch, a conservative website.
Cheney is seen as defending at least some traditional Republican shibboleths abandoned by Trump, such as fiscal responsibility and a hawkish stance towards Russia and other adversaries. Challengers to the president’s “America first” legacy might also soften the party’s positions on the climate crisis, immigration and trade.
But they would need a thick skin: even in defeat, Trump would still have Twitter, Fox News and the Make America Great Again movement at his disposal for heckling.
Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, argues that the party is caught in five traps of its own making, which Trump has only deepened: a steady movement to the right; demographic change; influence by rightwing media blunting its ability to govern; big tax cuts that created a split between its working-class supporters and marketplace conservatives; a disregard for democratic norms and institutions.
Patterson, author of a new book, Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, believes it will be a long road back. “If you look at what happened in 2018, the Republicans took quite a drubbing in the midterm election, and there was no lesson learned,” he said. “The way rightwing media spun it was the reason Republicans lost is because too many of them tried to move toward the centre.
“Even if they take a real beating in 2020, I think it’s probably going to take two or three of those beatings. They can talk all they want about reinvention but, as long as the primary nominating process keeps coughing up these conservatives, it’s going to be really hard for them to make the change.
“When you ask, who are the moderate leaders who are going to be in the vanguard of that change that have credibility with the base and elsewhere, boy, that’s a really short list. They pretty well wiped themselves clean of the moderate leadership.”
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