As the mad king raged at Savannah Guthrie for having the gall to question him about his conspiracy mongering, mask trutherism, and failure to even pretend to manage the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the country, the wishcasting texts and tweets began anew.
When this is over, can we get our Grand Ol’ Party party back?
As an O.G. Never Trumper, this is a question that I get a lot — from miserable GOP consultants, fellow ostracized Republicans, bewildered members of the political media, and liberals craving an opposition they can at least understand.
My phone tends to buzz more any time the president’s political fortunes look especially bleak. Or when the slightest nub of the cervical spine appears on a Republican elected official. (Did you see?!? McConnell oh-so-slightly distanced himself from Trump! Audio of Ben Sasse saying things about Trump that all the Republican senators know is true but never admit because they are scared of a mean tweet leaked! Larry Hogan wrote-in zombie Ronald Reagan!)
If Trump loses in November, there will be endless cable panels and egghead Zoom conferences on the matter, with pundits and strategists trying to will the Republican Party back to sanity.
Here’s the reality. (Brace yourself. I hate to be the bearer of bad news.) Trumpism is forever, even if Trump is only president for a few more months.
This is true both in the literal sense regarding the Orange First Family’s presence in our lives as well as in regard to the nature of the party itself, which is driven by voter priorities that have diverged from the “classical liberal” values that many conservative intellectuals claimed to prize.
For starters, even in defeat, Trump himself isn’t going anywhere. I hate to break it to you, but this ex-president will not be of a mind to retire to Texas for a quiet second life as a fabulous painter and bicycling enthusiast, only to pop his head up for an occasional charity infomercial.
No, Donald Trump is a man whose heart is a black hole that requires infinite praise and attention to be sustained. Whether he finds this validation through the purchase of a stupider, more soulless Fox News competitor or just spends his days in his pajamas calling into “the shows,” it is certain that he will not let us forget him. Nor will he abide any slights by the Republicans who are left standing. As The Bulwark‘s Jonathan V. Last put it, “Trump’s real passion seems to be fighting Republicans whom he deems insufficiently loyal,” and in a post-presidency I can promise you he will expend his political capital keeping the weak! Republicans in line. He gave a preview of this on The Rush Limbaugh Show last week, saying that Republicans aren’t acting tough enough on so-called Obamagate: “This is what I mean with Republicans, they don’t play the tough game.”
Plus, there is no reason to believe Trump would not attempt to pull a Grover Cleveland and run for a second, non-consecutive presidential term. (I have to admit to getting a bit of masochistic joy out of bringing this up to people who had not yet considered it. You are welcome for the night sweats.) Even if he doesn’t pull the trigger on such a run, he will certainly relish the prospect of a Trump redux hanging over our politics for a few years. If in the end he takes a pass, who’s to say that Don Jr. won’t attempt to follow in Daddy’s footsteps.
The Trumps themselves will be with us for years, or decades, to come. It is inevitable.
Here’s the even more foreboding reality: Trumpism is forever not just because of the president’s narcissistic pathologies, but also because it’s what Republican voters want.
There may have been a time when the party voters’ base desires were held in check by gatekeeping elites, but that time is long past. Party politics in the age of the internet are driven bottom up, not top down, and in the GOP, the bottoms are wearing red hats.
Some khaki-clad traditional Republicans who yearn for a resurrection of compassionate conservatism posit that these trends are temporary, that the Trumpian fever will break, voter loyalty will fade if the man whose brand is #winning loses to Sleepy Joe. They cling to the faulty notion that President Trump is an aberration, a one-off black swan event that can never be replicated.
There are several problems with this theory. The first is that it misdiagnoses Trump’s rise. He was not an outlier but the apotheosis of a decades-long populist takeover of the GOP. His ascension to the party crown has exacerbated and supercharged the trend line.
As Brad Todd, one of the top Republican campaign consultants and author of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, told me: “This is something that has been coming for 25 years, back to when I was working a Senate race in Georgia in 2004 between [Johnny] Isakson, Mac Collins, and Herman Cain.” Todd said that he was philosophically more of an “open borders guy” but recognized that in the face of perceived inaction on the matter in Washington, the GOP base “felt like it wasn’t being heard, which understandably resulted in more and more virulence” about immigration in the ensuing years. He added that while debates over the minimum wage, Social Security, and Medicare may still rage in conservative D.C. think tanks, “the debate is over” for the GOP electorate: “The neoconservative WSJ-ed board answer, of leaning on the freedom foot every time, is currently losing that argument inside the GOP after winning it for decades,” and “the cultural debate in the country is what energizes both parties right now.”
Consider that in 1992, George H.W. Bush faced two populist, nativist, and explicitly racist primary challengers in Pat Buchanan, who defined his political program as a “culture war,” and the white supremacist David Duke. In each of the first 14 contests, Buchanan and Duke combined to receive at least 25 percent of the vote, with Buchanan getting a high of 37.5 percent in New Hampshire. It was the Buchananite wing of the party that grew in the ensuing quarter-century to become large enough to propel Trump to the nomination in 2016.
Four years later President Trump didn’t face a comparable primary threat from an anti-populist wing. His three quixotic challengers — Bill Weld, Joe Walsh, and Mark Sanford — added together only managed to get 10 percent of the vote in a couple of states on the Northeastern seaboard and mostly languished in the single digits. Meanwhile the party apparatus aligned behind the wanna-be strongman president, canceling several primaries and caucuses with nary a peep from elected Republicans. None of the prominent party leaders or even former party leaders who claimed to oppose Trump endorsed one of his primary opponents or worked to get a bigger name challenger into the race. Nor did any of the major players in the Trump-aligned conservative media.
“It’s a cult. I ran headfirst into a cult,” said Walsh, a former member of Congress. “GOP money people couldn’t stand him but wouldn’t give any challenger [support]. GOP base voters are completely tied to him … It was mission impossible.” If you think Walsh is exaggerating, consider the data.
One GOP consultant told me that in a GOP primary poll the “number one issue for 80-plus percent of GOP primary voters was loyalty to Trump.” When I ran that number by several other Republican pollsters, there was universal concurrence that sticking with Trump was the top concern among GOP regulars. But they also noted that among the other top priorities were immigration restrictions, opposition to Black Lives Matter, and cracking down on “rioters.”
What’s clear is that the classically liberal, democratic values and American exceptionalist tropes that defined the GOP in the past are no longer a driver for voters who either fundamentally don’t care or are actively hostile to them.
This is evidenced not just in polls of GOP voters but in engagement in the conservative media. Tucker Carlson’s White Power Hour is the most-watched TV show in the country. Outlets that don’t bend the knee to Trump, like the Weekly Standard, are shuttered.
Some of this is due to the fact that the party makeup itself has evolved. Political analyst Ron Brownstein told me that Trump is “shifting the coalition further in the direction of voters who respond to Trumpism.”
In 2016 Trump received somewhere around 10 percent of his vote from people who had supported Obama in 2012, while about 4 percent went from Romney to Clinton. This shift is largely composed of white, working-class, non-college-educated voters moving from blue to red and white, college-educated suburbanites going in the other direction. This shift continued in the 2018 midterms, when non-Trump Republicans suffered shocking losses in red districts with higher-education levels like Charleston, South Carolina, but held firm in more rural districts and those with fewer voters with a college degree.
Brownstein pointed out that the GOP dropped from holding 43 percent to 24 percent of the House districts with an above-average share of college-educated residents in 2018! The party seems poised to lose even more of them this fall. By 2019 Pew showed that the share of white, college-educated GOP voters had dropped from 30 percent to 25 percent, while its share of the general population grew. This means that a significant percentage of the voters who were a “moderating” influence on GOP primaries have left the party and been replaced by an influx of culturally conservative, populist Trumpists.
As for the theory that this incentive structure will change if Biden wins and Trump becomes a “loser” — won’t the base come to its senses and stop following a whiny loser, won’t Trump be dispatched to the great Alaskan wilderness and D-list reality-TV purgatory that currently houses Sarah Palin? — this seems more like wishful thinking from consultants and pundits who don’t realize the party has passed them by than a realistic turn of events.
A big swath of the GOP base — possibly a majority — will believe that the election was stolen from Trump if he loses. Sixty-five percent of Republicans do not believe the election will be conducted fairly, according to an August NBC poll. 65 percent! And that’s before the interminable two months between Election Day and Inauguration Day, when the president of the United States is using the biggest bully pulpit in the world to announce that American democracy is dead and our elections rigged.
Even in the best of cases, where Joe Biden blows out President Trump to such a degree that contesting the election seems crazy to all but the most Q’d-out elements of the GOP base (which is still, conservatively speaking, one-fifth of the party), the damage will already be done. Left in the wreckage will be a Trumpified congressional delegation; an increasingly white, working-class, anti-immigrant party base with a conservative media and social media structure that incentivizes more extreme, anti-elite, “owning the libs” sentiment; and Trump himself maintaining a niche cultish following that he’s willing to deploy against those who undermine him.
In short, it’s the recipe for a MAGA-fied party set to continue down the orange-bricked road for years to come.