Everybody has a theory on where the Republican Party goes from here, but all of the theories are based on incomplete information. Not just because predicting the future is hard, but also because we still don’t know what precisely propelled Trump to the nomination. We know the combination of things, but not how important each aspect of it was. Would a disciplined nationalist have been able to accomplish it? Would a True Conservative with an aggressive middle finger have accomplished it? Would Mark Cuban have been able to do it? Hulk Hogan? This is important because nobody will be able to bring the exact same set of ingredients to the table, and we don’t know how transferable Trumpism is to people who are not Donald J Trump.
In addition to what has brought the Republican Party here, there is also the question of how its leaders respond. A lot of them are clearly uncomfortable with Trump, but not to the point that they are willing to break party protocol. It is unlikely that Trump’s priorities are shared by a majority of elected officials, but they are also unlikely to stand in the way of an oncoming truck. It’s also not clear which aspect of Trump they are uncomfortable with (or most uncomfortable with). Some could align with Trump Nationalism (defined here as a white ethnocentric opposition to immigration, trade, and a globalist system that is believed to be disadvantageous to the US) without the vulgarity. Some don’t care about the vulgarity as long as it gets votes and they can sneak in some tax cuts and/or goodies for their supporters.
So the machine contains many moving parts, some at odds with others. There is no central brain to it all and nobody to decide where things go from here, save perhaps the voters. We don’t know exactly what the voters want, we don’t know what the electeds will tolerate, or what the donors will contribute to. Trump has no obvious successor or united organization, nor does his opposition have a singular spokesperson or organization. There is no obvious path forward, only potential paths with reasons that they may occur or may not. So rather than predicting the future, we should evaluate potential futures.
The Reconstruction Scenario
The Establishment Strikes Back
While the vast majority have fallen into line, it’s pretty clear that congressional Republicans are not enjoying themselves. In fact, most seem pretty miserable. Donors also seem unhappy, if fundraising is any indication. They have a winnable election that they’re going to lose. Their congressional majorities are in jeopardy. Assurances that Trump would improve or that they were at least getting credit with Trump supporters for “standing by the nominee” have not occurred. And at the end of the day, they stand a chance of getting blamed for the loss anyway.
These are reasons to believe that they are going to determine that this simply isn’t a tenable situation and decide that they need to start getting aggressive. This path would include mitigating the importance of certain social conservative outlets, to whom they have essentially outsourced their PR. It means re-engaging traditional news outlets. In congress, they start favoring cooperative congressmen with committee assignments and giving more the Huelskamp treatment. There limits to what can be done here, but basically they start making life more difficult for the congressmen that make life more difficult for the leadership, and plowing ahead with their own agenda.
This may seem unlikely or impossible, but there is precedent and reason to believe that they can take the reins back. It was conventional wisdom in 2013 that there was just nothing the GOP could do about primary challenges, and as such there was nothing they could do to prevent shutdown fiascos and the like. What appeared to be an inevitable problem was taken care of in 2014 without incident. Only one establishment candidate got canned (Eric Cantor) and that was the one nobody was looking at. In 2010 and 2012, they were caught flatfooted, but the unnecessary losses in 2012 were so bad that by 2014 they could be ready. Being ready, it turned out, made a difference.
Why This Might Happen: One of the biggest factors in the 2016 primary was that nobody took Trump seriously until it was too late. Everybody thought that he was a tool they could use for their own ends. Cruz thought he would build up a support group that he could benefit from. The establishment thought they could use him against Cruz. Then what everybody knew wouldn’t happen happened. It’s possible that realizing the severity of the threat earlier would not have made any difference, but it might have. And in 2020 the candidate may not have the inherent advantages that Trump did in media attention and savvy. The rebel congressional candidates who lacked Trump’s advantages there did not succeed. Further, it’s possible that after yet another loss, the party may be open to change they weren’t in 2012.
Why This Might Not Happen: The path forward in the congressional example was reasonably straightforward: Win the primary. Here, they would need to try to remake the party. That’s harder. It also requires the sort of cooperation and discipline that has been utterly absent for the past year. The biggest problem is that their hand lacks strength. It’s not just that Trump won the nomination, but Ted Cruz came in second. Republican voters aren’t only repulsed by the things that repulse other voters, they’re attracted to them. Like a hipster who only likes what no one else has ever heard and abandons anything that achieves mainstream success, an awful lot of Republicans like only things outsiders hate and are suspicious of anything that might achieve broader acceptance. That’s a very hard dynamic to change, and they’d have to do it with less support for change than they had after 2012. It’s also easy to imagine this as a battle that is waged and lost, which makes it less likely to be waged in the first place.
The Amnesia Scenario
It will shock you how much it never happened
This theory was posited by Michael Brendan Dougherty, who argues that things aren’t as bad for the GOP as people think. Not only with the GOP not learn the lessons that Dougherty wishes they would, but they won’t even need to. Due to their structural and acquired advantages at every non-presidential level, they’ll rebound in 2018, find their footing, and become competitive when neither Trump nor a natural successor with the nomination.
For this to happen, Trump supporters and #NeverTrump conservatives would need to focus on their common enemy and stop going to war without one another. With Trump out of the picture, the old internal rivalries will begin anew and the axis tilt of the world will snap back into place. Nips and tucks may occur with regard to the agenda – advances by Reformocons and a little more flexibility and realism on the immigration issue, for example – but in the greater scheme of things they would be minor adjustments. That might mean that the GOP comes to the table with a winning hand in 2020 or maybe not. Some of that will depend on external factors such as the state of the economy, Clinton’s popularity, and so on. But in this scenario, everybody looking forward to the civil war to end all civil wars will be disappointed.
Why This Might Happen: Given how we don’t know precisely what fuels how much of Donald Trump’s support, it’s not difficult to imagine that Trump Nationalism simply fades into the background. Somebody will certainly pick up the banner on trade, more than one on immigration, and on vulgarity, but nobody will be able to put it back together again. The desire on the part of the rest of the Republicans to simply pretend that Trump and Trump Nationalism don’t exist will finally be successful. Trump TV will never get off the ground because he can’t raise the capital without potential advertisers lining up to associate themselves with it (you can run a website selling gold and One Weird Tricks, but not a cable network). Fox News may come back from the brink and look somewhat more like Megyn Kelly than Sean Hannity. Democratic attempts to tie the party indefinitely to Trump would be unsuccessful, in part because the media itself wants to move on.
Why This Might Not Happen: After the 2012 election, a lot of the people who would later line up behind Trump tried to play nice. Hannity endorsed amnesty, for example. The problem was that it never took hold with their audiences. Republican voters are generally open to legal status for illegal immigrants, but they seem averse to candidates who take that position and they seem okay with candidates who take the opposing position. There is also a sense that the curtain has been pulled back on economic conservatism, and the degree of fealty required to “small government” (in the economic realm, at least) is going to be hard to enforce, going forward. Leaving the party with what? The culture wars, which they’re losing, and cultural solidarity (and white ethnocentrism) as a logical result with or without Trump.
The Triumphant Nationalists
It’s Trump’s party now
In this scenario the GOP, as we have known it, is dead. #NeverTrump has hitched itself to a wagon headed for oblivion. Economic conservatism was never popular to begin with and has been exposed. A Paul Ryan Party simply doesn’t have the votes. So the party has to change, and Trump himself has demonstrated that the future isn’t conservatism (whatever that means) but populism. Another outsider celebrity who enters the party would likely try to fill this niche. Politicians who in the past have presented themselves as True Conservatives may pivot.
If this scenario is correct, Trump’s rise is attributable to the sheer attractiveness of Trump Nationalism. That means that while it may have required Trump to burn everything down, someone else will be able to pick up the baton and move forward. Due to the popularity of Trump, it will be hard for other Republicans to resist. Most will turn with the prevailing winds, and those that don’t will be challenged and kept out of leadership positions. Those that refused to endorse Trump will be punished. Even those suspected of opposing him might be. It would be pretty ugly. At least, for those who oppose Trump.
It could be a true believer, or it could be an opportunist who sees an opportunity, who picks up the Trump banner and successfully runs with it. Whether success is met with a calculating, disciplined politician or loudmouthed firebrand, the general trajectory will likely be the same. As soon as this election is over, the warnings of Reince and others come to fruition and the civil war begins and people who aren’t with the program are either converted or ejected. Or, at least, enough of them are compromised or ejected that the trajectory of the new party is determined. Ryan is either cowed or displaced and McConnell becomes the biggest fan of populism you’ve ever seen. For many in the party, there would simply be nothing left to save.
With a better face, they might be able to get the reformocons on board. They might even start presenting plans and ideas. Trump made it this far without either, and because of that we may not have seen anywhere close to its full potential. If they come to the table with a plan, that alone may put them ahead of the other factions.
Why This Might Happen: The Party has let them go this far. It’s unclear that they have the inclination or capability to prevent the above from happening. Even worse, a lot of the people that would work to prevent this have left the party. Congress is full of people who don’t need to worry about non-Republican voters, and they could come to the collective decision that their primary fear comes from populist and nationalist challengers. They might believe that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the quickest path to the presidency involves consolidating the white vote and if not, well at least they’re safe. Further, the remainder of the party remains very split on the direction of the party and that leaves room for the divide-and-conquer strategy that got Trump through the primaries. If TrumpTV becomes a thing, and/or Fox does not reform, they will continue to have the loudest megaphones on the right. Even if it turns out that Trump’s base of support was mostly his celebrity, the next celebrity would be wise to come with a nationalist or populist face than a True Conservative one.
Why This Might Not Happen: While Trump’s ascent was not as anomalous as a lot of #NeverTrump folks would like to believe, the notion that he crushed the primaries and is the spear tip of a revolution needs some work. First, he was the weakest nominee in recent history and this is not because of the number of opponents he had (a primary field of 3-4, as was the case after South Carolina, is not atypical). While he is viewed favorably by most of the party, his favorables are considerably lower than Mitt Romney’s were, and Mitt is often considered to be someone that had trouble consolidating the base. Further, in 2012 most Romney voters were voting for Romney, whereas most Trump voters are voting against Clinton. Nobody believes that in 2012 Romney was beloved by the party and had an intractable grip on the party, so it’s not clear that Trump does either. People have pointed to Goldwater as an example of someone who lost the election and won the party, but Goldwater’s support base wasn’t as old as Trump’s.
The Trucons Triumphant
They finally get their moment
One of the battles after the election will be over the question of whether Trump lost because he was too narrowly conservative or not strongly enough conservative. The Reconstruction Scenario assumes that the “too narrowly conservative” side wins, but it could well be that the “not strongly enough” side does. This scenario would look pretty familiar in that it would be fighting the same battles as were fought before Trump. People will argue that too many white voters stayed home and too many conservatives were uninspired by Trump’s failure to stick with Constitutional Principles.
Why This Might Happen: If the election goes badly enough, some of Trump’s supporters will be looking for cover, and they’re more likely to find it in the Trucon crowd than the irate Reconstruction crowd. Combined with party departures, that could be enough to tilt control over to the Ted Cruz faction to the point that there is nothing the rest of the party can do.
The Trucons hit a bit of a slump after things went sideways with the shutdown, but Barack Obama won’t be president anymore and their resistance may be even weaker going forward than it was back then (and back then, it wasn’t enough to stop the shutdown).
Why This Might Not Happen: It’s unclear why the True Conservatives would be the senior partner in this alliance. Their chief contributions, Constitutional Principles and social conservatism, has been exposed as somewhat negotiable. It’s going to be hard for the entertainment wing and social conservative leaders to go back to a no-compromise stance within the party, given the compromise they have accepted this year. It would require that the election results be so bad that the Trump boosters are simply running for any cover they can find. Cruz lost the 1-on-1 with Trump, and has demonstrated the difficulty of gaining support outside the South. It seems unlikely that the little fish is going to be able to beat the big fish. And lastly, while Trump’s support base is older, people are living longer and younger people aren’t actually joining the party.
Unmentioned is the possibility of a formal, substantial split, which is both unlikely and simply has too many variations to investigate. A substantial split remains unlikely because law and custom have hard-coded the two parties into our system. A minor and transitory split, like with other potential influencing factors like reformocons and libertarians, remains in the background of some of the above. There are, in truth, infinite variations and paths forward. We are in uncharted territory and the only consolation is that all bleeding stops eventually. One way or another.
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