Trumpism Is Here to Stay, No Matter Who’s in the White House
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- As the ballot-counting drags on, President Trump’s fate is still unsettled. The fate of Trumpism, on the other hand, is clear: It isn’t going away. And Trump himself may remain in the political spotlight even if he loses.
As the Electoral College battle extends into overtime, the results already highlight the ways in which Trump’s four years in office have imprinted his stamp on the American political map. Even if he squeaks through with just enough support to secure another term, he’s changed U.S. politics in a way that is perilous for the Republican Party—and will be difficult to undo.
Whatever the GOP once stood for, voters today associate it with one thing: Donald Trump. Democrats went into the election believing this would be an unalloyed disaster for Republicans’ fortunes. It wasn’t. Instead of a “blue wave,” the result was a roiling crosscurrent that drove GOP gains in the House of Representatives and limited Democrats’ advances in the Senate, even as it shifted key states in the electoral map to Joe Biden.
The clearest sign of why that’s a problem for Republicans comes in the races that have been called. The election results confirmed the movement of suburban voters away from the GOP, even though it retreated in some places from 2018. Regardless of the outcome, the realignment of the suburbs from red to blue has picked up astonishing speed during Trump’s tumultuous tenure.
In 2016, even while losing to Trump, Hillary Clinton bested Barack Obama’s performance in the suburb-heavy states of Arizona and Texas. In 2018, voters ousted Republican incumbents in suburban areas around Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, the District of Columbia (Northern Virginia), Minneapolis, New York (northern New Jersey), and Philadelphia, handing Democrats control of the House of Representatives. That eroding Republican support, especially among white, college-educated professionals, looked to be a bad omen for Trump—but no one could be certain. “In 2018 it wasn’t really apparent how unpopular Trump was in those suburbs because there was no presidential race that was being tested on the ballot,” says David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. On Nov. 3 there was, and the verdict wasn’t great.
The suburban revolt against Trump and the GOP held up in most of the areas Democrats won two years ago. But it didn’t extend to the smaller, red-leaning metro areas such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and St. Louis that they hoped to add this cycle, or reach House districts in Texas they’d expected to gain. And the blue wave from 2018 ebbed, costing Democrats seats in suburban districts like Oklahoma’s 5th and South Carolina’s 1st, where Republicans regained control. After the 2018 election, a popular refrain among Republican strategists was that suburban voters may not love Trump, but they were happy to cast a ballot for their local Republican representative. At least in red states, that still appears to be true.
Nevertheless, over four years, Trump has driven the Republican Party to near extinction in suburbs across America because most voters there find him repellent. This trend is most pronounced in the areas of the country that are growing the fastest—places such as Arizona’s Maricopa County, which encompasses the Phoenix suburbs. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama there by 147,000 votes. In 2016, Trump edged Clinton by 41,000. This year, when all the ballots are counted, Biden’s margin could approach 150,000 votes, cementing Arizona, a bedrock of the Republican electoral coalition for decades, as a new battleground state.
Republicans can’t build a solid governing coalition without first figuring out how to fix their suburban problem. “It’s simple to say, harder to do,” says Kirk Adams, the Republican former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, who represented a suburban Phoenix district. “People in the suburbs want government to work. They want it to be effective and to solve problems. They don’t want to be associated with anything that has even a tinge of racism. For the GOP to win them back is going to require candidates who speak to issues that they care about and do it in a way that is civil and smart.”
But for the last four years, all the momentum has gone the other way. Republican politicians at every level have learned that the path to success in the Trump era entails praising and emulating the president. And Nov. 3’s better-than-expected results are unlikely to drive a reform movement. Breaking away from him now—even if he loses—may be impossible. Currently, many Republican voters evince more excitement about QAnon, the pro-Trump, anti-Democratic conspiracy theory, than for returning to the sober competence of a Mitt Romney. Trump’s approval rating with GOP voters hovers around 90%, and the moderates and #NeverTrump conservatives who oppose him have either left or been driven out of the party. There isn’t an obvious candidate to steer the GOP back to the center.
Recent history already includes one attempt at broad-scale rehabilitation that failed. After Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential race, the Republican National Committee conducted an “autopsy” of what had driven the loss and how the party could recover. Its conclusion—that the GOP should embrace immigration reform and present a softer, more welcoming image to attract minorities, millennials, and LGBTQ people—was roundly ignored. Instead, Trump emerged as the galvanizing figure, yanking the party in the opposite direction. It’s a role he seems unlikely to yield, regardless of this year’s outcome.
“I don’t see any appetite for an autopsy, not for the old one or for a new one,” says Tim Miller, a former top strategist for Jeb Bush. “I think there’ll be a very slim minority of pencil-heads in D.C. and a handful of people in Congress who want to look at how the party can revamp and broaden its appeal. But all the incentives in the small-dollar donor world, on Fox News, and on Twitter still point toward Trump’s formula of doubling down on white grievance, ‘owning the libs,’ and pushing anti-elite populist nonsense. There’s just no appetite for reform.”
A party that remains in thrall to Trump’s peculiar obsessions (antipathy to masks; Hunter Biden’s laptop; Kamala Harris’s alleged socialism) isn’t likely to have an easy time coaxing back the voters it’s driven away. Whether Republicans can correct course and appeal to suburban women and others who’ve switched over to the Democrats will depend on how the party comes to understand its plight.
Even a Trump loss doesn’t ensure that the GOP will embark on the process of making the necessary adjustments. “When a party loses, especially when it loses big, the question is what becomes the dominant interpretation within the party of why they lost,” says David Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College. “When Democrats lost four years ago, the dominant interpretation they took away was ‘Don’t nominate a woman.’ With Trump, I think the question will become, was it a personal disaster particular to the candidate? Or will the interpretation be that Trump was a martyr to the Left—destroyed by the media, the deep state, the phony mail-in ballots, China, and so on—and the lesson is to fight even harder and go further than he did?”
The biggest wild card in the GOP’s future is Trump himself and what path he chooses next. If he loses, he stands to be robbed of the spotlight he’s commanded with punishing consistency since he became a candidate five years ago. For someone who craves attention and relevancy the way Trump does, that has to be a painful thought. But there’s a simple way to avoid oblivion: He could turn around and immediately file to run for president again, in 2024. (Back in 2017, he filed to run for reelection on the day he was inaugurated.) Doing that would guarantee him a platform, since he has enough support to credibly pursue the nomination and would present a daunting obstacle for any other Republican hopefuls.
“Defining Trump’s base is tricky, but there’s a clear group of die-hards,” says John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who helps oversee the Democracy Fund-UCLA Nationscape poll. “We’ve been interviewing the same people over time, and those who have a consistently high view of Trump is maybe 20% of respondents.” That’s more support than any other Republican has.
Declaring his candidacy could also appeal to Trump for reasons that have nothing to do with wanting to get back to the White House. He has privately expressed anxiety to allies about scrutiny from prosecutors in New York and possible federal probes into his business empire that could arise once he leaves office. One Democratic lawyer notes that if Trump were to lose and declare himself a candidate for 2024, he could claim that any investigation was politically motivated and designed to thwart his return to the presidency.
Some Trump allies envision no scenario where he willingly leaves the stage, regardless of the election outcome—a possibility that would greatly complicate the party’s effort to move beyond him and renew its appeal to the broad swaths of the electorate that have defected to Democrats. “Only two things can happen—Trump wins or it’s stolen,” says Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist in the 2016 election. “[Presumed Republican presidential hopefuls] Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo may not realize it, but they’re running for VP on Trump’s ticket in 2024.”
Without a crystal ball, no one can know if Trump will return to the White House next year or in the future, or if he’ll even try. Bannon has added incentive to tout Trump’s strength and belittle his rivals, since he was indicted for fraud in August and would benefit from a Trump pardon. But one prediction from him seems like a safe bet, and one sure to induce migraines in Republican leaders eager to move on from Trump: “He’s not going away.”
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