Two weeks from Election Day, the polling aggregators rate Donald Trump’s prospects of winning the presidency at somewhat less rosy than a snow cone’s chance in Hell. His impending humiliation is already engendering regular prognoses about the horrors of a Trump afterlife, but this is mere foreshadowing. When Trump finally loses, the country’s entire pundit class will squint into the entrails of his vanquished campaign to divine his future influence over the Republican Party. Here’s the truth: There will be none.
Paul Krugman, in his Monday column for The New York Times, is the latest to press the case for a long post-2016 hangover. With or without the frothing menace as its figurehead, he writes, the Republican Party has been remade in Trump’s image; going forward, its voters will only support fabulists who denigrate minorities and traffic in dark warnings of a rigged electoral system. “Trumpism is what the party is all about,” Krugman argues. “The underlying nastiness is now part of Republican DNA.”
But that’s exactly backwards. Republicans have been serving up nasty, fact-free delusions to an increasingly white base for decades now. That’s how Bill Clinton was sold as an international drug kingpin who murdered Vince Foster and Barack Obama was found to be “palling around with terrorists.” The Southern Strategy of spinning racial prejudice into conservative victories was first deployed nearly 50 years ago, and the great American tradition of right-wing conspiracy theorizing goes back a lot longer than that. Trump didn’t invent the intrinsic tendencies of the Republican Party, he simply exploited them. He didn’t create the Willie Horton ad, he just hired the guy who did.
Trump’s major contribution was to offer himself as the GOP’s perfect vessel: a lying, screaming prophet of American decline. If the party’s primary voters were content to merely pull the lever for a candidate who compared homosexuality to bestiality or decried the Common Core as anti-American propaganda, they could have voted for Rick Santorum or Rand Paul. There were 16 different flavors of conventional crazy for sale in the early stages of this election cycle—candidates who not only checked all the right boxes on supply-side tax cuts and abortion restriction, but also pandered to right-wing paranoia and white identity politics.
The Republican electorate didn’t want them. Long addicted to the narcotic of tribal antipathy, they sought its undiluted essence. Trump, who vocalized their grievances so openly that even party luminaries denounced him for it, was happy to act as supplier. In working the Republicans’ con game better than they ever could—in emasculating and disqualifying their candidates on the debate stage, exactly as they’d previously attempted with their Democratic rivals—he represented a distilled Republicanism mercifully stripped of its AEI white papers and perfunctory “minority outreach.”
This cannot be sustained, however. Trump himself is indispensable to Trumpism, and without him it will cease to exist. On Election Day, having shrunk beneath the enormity of his disgrace, Trump will be unmasked to his followers as a counterfeit Jeremiah. Republican office holders, interest groups, and aligned media (outside the Hannity-Drudge-Breitbart axis) already despise him, and the fence-sitters will have to turn their backs on the author of a third consecutive presidential drubbing.
Even if the Trump candidacy is a dead end, many subscribe to the fallacy that some spiritual successor will arrive in 2020 to carry on his work. Krugman writes that “Trump’s party” could identify “future standard bearers with better impulse control and fewer personal skeletons in their closets.” Over at Slate, Isaac Chotiner has warned that “a better, cooler, more polished Trump could rise in his wake.” Politico published a preliminary list of celebrities who might follow in his footsteps.
But Trump is sui generis. Ted Cruz entered 2016 with a bulletproof anti-establishment resumé, and look how far he got running as a slightly “cooler, more polished” alternative. If Cruz ran in four years as a feel-good Trump 2.0, his target demographic would sniff an opportunist. To win them over, you can’t just tie a rope around your waist and spelunk to the darkest caves of right-wing thought; you have to untether yourself completely.
Anyone with the requisite political instincts to win a general election would have to temporize eventually, which would mark him as a career politician. Anyone exotic enough to fully copy the Trump playbook would be vaporized by the institutional weaponry of the Republican Party, which won’t be caught sleeping twice in a row. Just as they successfully adapted to the threat of Tea Party primary challenges, they’ll form an immune response to this kind of hostile takeover.
Very few politicians exert lasting influence on American political parties. The last ones to do so were Lyndon Johnson (who shattered the remnants of the New Deal coalition and inadvertently established the Democrats as a multiethnic alliance in favor of big government and various liberation movements) and Ronald Reagan (who solidified a pact between the Moral Majority and business elites that is only now breaking down).
But these were two-term presidents who won massive legislative victories. Trump, who was never selling a governing ethos to begin with, will be a profoundly rejected figure. The fleeting preoccupations of his campaign—assembling a deportation force, building a border wall, renegotiating free-trade deals, and demanding tribute from NATO signatories—will be orphaned in his absence. In truth, they never even really interested Trump’s supporters as much as his general attitude of outraged atavism. And we’ve seen where that approach leads.
Since December, the Times has published no fewer than three articles titled “Trumpism After Trump,” signaling a belief among political observers that this agonizing journey will leave some meaningful bequest to our politics
Anand Giridharadas mused in December that “Trumpism might outlast Trump … by gelling this anxiety and longing into a movement, by giving a new permission to question who is American, by redrawing the borders of respectable debate.” But the intervening months have shown Trump’s rhetoric limited to his TV lackeys; the Republican establishment, from House Speaker Paul Ryan on down, continues to condemn the candidate’s language and behavior. Ross Douthat argued in March that “if the party can’t be united under Trump, both his fans and his foes will probably face a stark choice in the aftermath: Rejoin or die”—but last week he tempered his position, writing that he suspects Trump “won’t be as influential over the next four years as a lot of people fear.” And earlier this month, Roger Cohen described Trump as “a warning,” adding, “If the warning is not heeded, Trump may fail next month but another Trump will arise.”
It is not to be. The tents are just about packed up, the circus is leaving town, and the Republicans are left facing the same dilemma they tried to confront four years ago. Speaking for the rest of us, I’d recommend that we never speak of Trump again. Come November 9, that will be easier than most people seem to think.