Four Republican Futures

Bloom Briefing 46: Four Paths Forward for the Republican Party Post Trump

From Nixon’s Southern Strategy, to Reagan’s Welfare Queens, to the elder Bush’s Willie Horton ad, through the Party’s sustained promotion of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the 21st-century, Republicans have relied on the promotion of fear of non-white people to motivate their voters. 

Trump rose to power by exchanging the aforementioned racist dog whistles for a fog horn.  He literally announced his candidacy for president by spewing false bile about Mexicans being rapists and criminals (immigrants, both with and without documentation, commit less crime than native-born Americans).  By saying explicitly that which other politicians would only say implicitly, Trump was able to motivate voters who might not otherwise have been interested in politics.  In other words, he captured the overtly-racist vote.

In this context, I have long argued that Trump was Republicanism’s natural apotheosis rather than an aberration.  But what happens after an apotheosis?  Today, I lay out four theories about what the dénouement of this half-century era of Republicanism looks like.  Next week I’ll evaluate the prospects for each of these futures to return Republicans to the White House.

Option 1: Cleave in Two

Since it became apparent that Republicans would not be successful at impeding the transition of power, Trump has hinted at the possibility of forming his own party.  The conspiracists among his supporters (which are not small in number) have begun organizing Patriot Party Facebook groups.  These ardent Trumpists are probably a mix of those with loose ties to the Republican Party (i.e., they weren’t politically active pre-Trump) and traditional Republicans who have been radicalized by Trump’s rise and fall.

At the same time as these folks may be hinting at a desire to exit the Party to the right, others have been exiting or disavowing the Party in its present state from the center.  The Lincoln Project is probably the most notable political entity to wade in on this front.  But a number of politicians exist here too, from John Kasich who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, to others who have decided not to serve anymore (such as Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Justin Amash, and more recently Pat Toomey).  Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney continue to serve but are avowed never-Trumpers.  While some of the people in this camp have formally left the Party (e.g., Amash) and others remain, all clearly share a disapproval of the Trumpist turn. 

Until this week it had been hard to figure out exactly what this group would stand for, but Mitt Romney’s proposal to provide stipends to families to help cover childcare costs was a good indicator.  We might call this social safety net reform.  It rolls a patchwork quilt of benefits programs into one basic payment.  This group is obviously hawkish and would forcefully promote American interests abroad, but probably not to an extent that would be so different from an Obama or Biden Administration (though there would be lots of other differences).  Is it possible to imagine a Republican Party interested in good-faith bipartisan governance?  Maybe I’m just Charlie Brown and Mitt Romney is holding the football.

We’re not likely to find out, though, because this scenario is very very unlikely. Neither of these factions within the Party has much power.  Romney, Murkowski, and Collins are all unicorns, each sustained by the unique politics in their home states.  While they could conceivably form a bloc that would check the worst impulses of their own party when in power, we just had a pretty good example of that not happening at all!  The fact that Flake, Corker, and Toomey all left office rather than continue to serve is a useful indicator about where they think the Party is headed, and it’s not back in the direction of moderation.

At the other end of the spectrum, forming a political party is extremely difficult.  It’s even more difficult when the voters who would form that party’s base are tenuously tied to the political process and mostly involved in a cult of personality.  There’s a level of technical expertise required to know how to file paperwork to fundraise and get on ballots and such, and it’s not clear that this camp possesses that expertise.  In short, it doesn’t seem likely that the moderates have enough voters/power to break away, no does it seem likely that the Trumpists could actually stand up a political apparatus capable of challenging Republicanism on the right.

Option 2: Exile the Fringe

The ship may have already sailed on this one after only 11 Republicans voted to strip Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments in a full House vote this week, but one option available to Republicans post-January 6th was to exile the fringe of their Party and try to make a clean break with Trump.  This would be something like, “go back to 2016 and imagine 2016-vintage Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz had won the nomination and lost the general election.”

This was never going to look like the full-scale repudiation of Trump the exit-center Republicans I described above were going to want, but it might have seen Greene, Lauren Boebert, Josh Hawley, and 2021-vintage Ted Cruz marginalized within Congress and the Party apparatus. 

A light version of this is still possible if 17 Republican senators vote to convict Trump in the upcoming impeachment trial.  That would, theoretically, draw a line under Trump, but with so many clearly Trumpist Republican elected officials, it’s unclear that this would actually represent a clean break.  Even if you think McConnell, Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Toomey and Rob Portman and Richard Shelby (who just announced they’re not running for re-election), and Ben Sasse might all be votes to convict, it’s hard to see a path to 9 more votes.  I’m not sure those 8 are even all that likely.

At this point, the theoretical fringe seems more powerful than those who would seek to exile it.

Option 3: Go Full Trump

There’s an at least decent case to be made that the Republican Party is already fully Trumpist.  Republican voters support Trump by overwhelming margins.  There is very little appetite to tolerate Trump critics within Republican ranks.  Representative Liz Cheney survived a vote to remove her from her leadership position within the Republican House caucus (because of her vote to impeach Trump), but likely only because the vote to remove her was conducted via secret ballot. 

But I think the vote not to remove Cheney is telling for other reasons.  It shows that most Republicans in the House are comfortable with a Party where some members are anti-Trump and outspokenly so, and others carry the Trumpist mantle.  At present, that’s not a fully-Trump party.  That’s a party with at least a little bit of dissension. 

It’s possible that in the coming months, the anti-Trump voices within the Republican Party are further marginalized.  Cheney already has drawn a primary challenger.  Others who voted to impeach Trump may well also.  A Republican Party that further marginalizes its anti-Trump crowd may find itself without any moderating influence whatsoever.  The House will get further down this road than the Senate, but with Toomey, Portman, and Shelby all departing in two years, it’s possible a more Trumpist Republican Senate coalition emerges.

Option 4: Inertia until the 2024 Presidential Primary

The last option remaining is something akin to inertia.  The various factions at play continue to coexist in roughly their current balance of power.  Republicans unite around obstructing Democratic governance, there is no schism, and neither the anti-Trumpists or the fringe are able to wield full control. 

This feels like the most likely short-term path forward.  Much as Democrats didn’t really have a figurehead between 2016 and Biden’s nomination, Republicans may find themselves in the same place. Competing factions vie for power, and no real next trajectory for the Party is chosen until Republican voters decide on their presidential candidate in 2024.

It might be hard to imagine that the 2024 Republican presidential primary could wind up with someone other than a Trumpist winning, but I wouldn’t be so sure.  Of course, Trump himself might run, and he’d certainly be the favorite if he did.  But if he doesn’t, it’s not clear that anyone else (despite Hawley’s and Cruz’s efforts) can motivate the voters Trump did at anything near his level of efficacy. 

It’s important to remember that Trump didn’t win the 2016 primary in a landslide.  In fact, he didn’t win a majority of the vote.  Cruz took 25% of the vote, Rubio 11% (despite dropping out before many of the later contests), and Kasich 14%.  By comparison, Mitt Romney took over 52% of the vote in the 2012 primary.  Apples to apples comparisons across primaries don’t really work because of different degrees of competitiveness over time, but if we look at just the early states (except Nevada), in the 2016 primary, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush collectively took more of the vote than Donald Trump.  At least 5 years ago, there was a substantial contingent of Republican voters that preferred a less offensive candidate.

Given where the Republican Party is today, this strikes me as the most likely scenario until early in 2024.

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Additional Reading:

For the BBC, a team of journalists reports on Uighur concentration camps in northwest China after interviewing survivors and employees.  We really must not look away from the atrocities happening there.  Imagine the most powerful totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th-century with all the technology of the 21st.  Trigger warning: sexual violence

At the Washington Post, Max Bearak and Rael Ombuor tell the unusual story of a Kenyan-American nurse from Eastern Pennsylvania who discovers abuse at an orphanage near her hometown, collects evidence, and eventually helps the FBI convict the perpetrator.

At the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie writes about the mainstreaming of the conservative fringe.