The Future of the Republican Party
Part One: Trump ripped through the GOP. Here's what comes next.
Over the past four years, Donald Trump staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Even now, Republican officials remain shockingly complicit in his refusal to accept defeat. That makes it tempting to write off the Republican Party—to believe that the health of American democracy depends on ensuring this party never again occupies the White House.
But in a two-party system, it is neither likely nor healthy for one party to be in power indefinitely. For democracy to thrive, we need a right-of-center party committed to the rules and norms of our republic. This is why Persuasion will be publishing a series of essays on the future of the Republican Party, what it could become, and what is should become. I hope you will enjoy the series and see its value, even if (like me) you are left-of-center. —Yascha Mounk
Part One: What Next?
By Geoffrey Kabaservice
The Trump presidency came to an end in the infamous post-election press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, on a seedy Philadelphia strip between a crematorium and a sex shop called Fantasy Island Adult Books and Novelties. The big question that confronts the Republican Party is whether to stay on Trump’s Fantasy Island or return to the real world.
William F. Buckley Jr., intellectual founder of the modern conservative movement, insisted in a 1970 interview that “conservatism is the politics of reality.” While the movement that Buckley created, and that Ronald Reagan translated into practical politics, was highly conservative on a standard left-right ideological axis, it generally adhered to liberal-democratic norms and relied upon rational argument.
But another strain of conservatism can be found at the other end of the reality-to-fantasy axis: the conspiracy-obsessed, anti-establishment, almost nihilistic populism that traced back to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade in the early 1950s and has extended from the John Birch Society and the Tea Party movement all the way to Pizzagate and QAnon. Many of its believers form a major part of Trump’s base, and he has traveled farther down that populist axis into fantasy than any president before. The fate of the Republican Party depends on how many of the 73 million Americans who voted for him will go on that journey with him.
A minority of Republicans—the Never Trumpers—have resisted Trump’s chaos. The MAGA faithful embraced it all. And another portion put up with the costs of Trumpism to get what they see as the benefits. This three-way split will run through the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.
Prognosticating about the future of the GOP in the aftermath of an election is a tricky business. But three scenarios present themselves.
The MAGA scenario. Trump is eventually forced out of the White House, but Trumpism still dominates the Republican Party. Huge numbers of Republican voters continue to claim, without proof, that Democrats stole the election. They refuse to recognize the Biden administration or the democratic system that brought it to power. Republicans in Congress implacably oppose every Democratic proposal without offering any realistic alternatives; those who negotiate or even meet with the Biden administration face excommunication. A McConnell-led Senate (assuming Democratic losses in both Georgia senatorial runoffs) refuses to confirm any of President Biden’s judicial nominations or Cabinet picks. Republicans obstruct Covid-relief legislation and vaccine distribution. Trump-loving, gun-toting paramilitaries become ever more organized and emboldened, while his supporters in the culture wars come to believe that those who criticize their leader are enemies to be destroyed. The 2024 Republican presidential nominee will be a member of The Family; a Trump-style populist entertainer like Tucker Carlson; or perhaps Trump himself.
The reason this scenario feels plausible is that Trump’s core supporters perceive his presidency emotionally rather than rationally. Trumpism has been a political counterculture, unlike anything that has come before it. I can remember a time when people on the right rarely held mass meetings; the witticism was that liberals had rallies and conservatives had jobs. Now, conservatives have tasted the delights of political theater and collective struggle. They have felt the tribal thrill of a united people in glorious cause around a heroic leader. They will not change their minds soon, and will fight to keep the Trumpian Age of Aquarius alive.
But it’s usually a sign of weakness when a political movement stokes the intensity of its base rather than trying to reach out for new converts. Highly ideological candidates typically lose because they provoke even more fervent and widespread opposition. One of the conservative politicians who understood this best was Reagan, who made conscious efforts to reach beyond his base to wavering moderates. The reporter Mary McGrory noticed that, in his first political campaign in 1966, Reagan refrained from sounding the pure chords of conservatism that had driven Barry Goldwater’s right-wing followers into raptures. The true believers on the right would vote for him, she predicted, “but they won’t die for him.” By lowering the ideological temperature, Reagan made himself less threatening to people who otherwise would have opposed him.
The Republican Party professionals scenario. Here, political experts within the party realize that the size and frequency of Trump’s rallies are no guarantee of his victory, much as his “owning the libs” doesn’t make up for his failure to pass any significant legislation aside from the 2017 tax cut. They know that holding on to the fiction that Democrats stole the election makes them look ridiculous and unhinged to all but the MAGA faithful. Political realities compel them to move the GOP a few steps away from Trump. Eventually, the kinds of conservatives who appear on Fox News grudgingly concede that Biden won. They still proclaim allegiance to Trump, but hint that his America First antagonism toward trade and international alliances did more harm than good. Republicans in Congress become fiscal-austerity-plus-tax-cuts zealots who refuse to cooperate with Democrats on any significant legislation, but their fanaticism stops just short of shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt. They cheer as the Supreme Court guts Obamacare but stymie any Democratic fixes. The GOP machinery works relentlessly to tie Biden to socialism, and all Democratic legislators to “defund the police” and the worst excesses of woke-ism. Bow-tied commentators on Fox and Sinclair talk up the merits of Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis as presidential candidates to excite the masses with Trumpian bravado while also pleasing the party establishment.
This scenario strikes me as the most likely. In a post-Trump era, the donor-class agenda will regain its luster with congressional Republicans. The problem is that Trumpism wasn’t an inexplicable phenomenon or a mere byproduct of white racism. The discontent that primed an audience for Trump came from the growing, globalization-driven divide between prosperous, highly educated metropolitan areas and the left-behind rural areas and post-industrial towns. In 2020, it became evident that sizeable numbers of working-class voters of all races found something appealing in Trump’s indictment of a status quo that is heavily tilted in favor of politically connected insiders. But while the growing economy during Trump’s term benefited the working class, he had no interest in advancing policies that would make his populism anything more than rhetoric and invective.
At the same time, Trump was busily alienating the college-educated, suburban middle classes who once reliably voted Republican. It may be that his racism, misogyny, cavalier attitude toward the pandemic, and general Know-Nothing-ism have permanently pushed them away from the party, and that future political demographers will consider Biden Republicans as the 2020s equivalent of Reagan Democrats of the 1980s. Still, it will take another few cycles before we’ll know, during which time the GOP will spend enormous sums to try to win them back. This raises a third possibility.
The outreach scenario. What if a post-Trump Republican Party were to come up with policies to win over both the working class and the middle class? While this seems unlikely at the moment, the 2020 elections laid the groundwork for it by removing the greatest obstacle to policymaking—Trump—while thwarting a Democratic landslide that would have empowered the far-left to pass a radical program against the wishes of most of the population. Under those circumstances, the Republican Party would have curled into a tight ball of absolute opposition. As it is, the 2020 elections strengthened the hand of comparatively moderate Republicans, and there is some room for pragmatic negotiation.
A governing-minded group of center-right Republicans could work with their center-left Democratic counterparts to propose programs to support working-class Americans that Trump only talked about. These could include a job-creating infrastructure rebuild that would also lower carbon emissions, efforts to end the ongoing opioid epidemic, paid family leave, and turning the existing Child Tax Credit into a bona fide child allowance. Such a group could devise proposals to promote training programs and apprenticeships for the skilled trades, or work toward devising an industrial policy to achieve economic independence from China. They might even take a leaf from Trump’s 2016 campaign playbook and eliminate the income-tax dodges that allow hedge-fund managers and others on Wall Street to avoid paying their fair share.
Voters will look to both parties to revive the economy by bringing the pandemic under control and offering economic relief to those worst affected by closures. As it happens, the model of a moderate Republican response to the coronavirus pandemic will be joining the next Congress: Carlos Giménez, the newly elected Republican representative from south Florida’s 26th congressional district who is currently the mayor of Miami-Dade County.
Giménez and many of the other newly elected Republican House representatives won in swing districts where they will replace those moderate Democrats who defeated (mostly) moderate Republicans in 2018. They have great incentives to work with Democrats on issues such as criminal justice reform, police oversight measures, a resolution of the DREAMers’ legal status, and investment in neglected communities. Giménez and some other new Republican members may even buck their conference to work with Democrats to address climate change, which poses a particular threat to coastal cities like Miami.
Republicans who want to govern will have to balance the obligation to cooperate with Democrats with their wish not to inflame the pro-Trump base. But good-faith efforts to govern may also help Republicans in the 2022 midterms. As the out-party, they would expect to add seats, so long as they are not seen as trying to sabotage the economy for political gain.
Democrats might prefer to run in 2024 against a party that is stuck in a populist or ideological dead end. But the Republican Party has it within its power to either destroy the country or come up with solutions to the problems that threaten us all. Ultimately the long-term health of the American political system depends on having two reality-based parties.
Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.