Donald Trump is the past, present, and future of the Republican Party. And that is because the GOP is no longer a traditional political party designed to win elections so that it can enact a policy agenda. It is a personality cult built around grievance.
To understand its true nature, you must first understand how weak Trump was as an electoral force.
It is devilishly hard to unseat an elected president. Trump is only the third elected president to be defeated since Hoover. His overperformance of polling expectations has obscured how far he ran behind statewide Republican candidates across the map: Trump ran 7 points behind Susan Collins in Maine, 4 points behind Mike Rounds in South Dakota, and 2 points behind Cory Gardner in Colorado.
There are a handful of spots, such as North Carolina, where Trump ran with, or slightly ahead, of the statewide Republican. But those are the exceptions. Trump was—as he has been since 2016—an electoral albatross for the Republican Party.
A rational political party would see the Trump presidency as a mistake and attempt to pivot away from it as quickly as possible. Some people—such as George W. Bush or Mitt Romney—are attempting to move on from the president. But the main body of the GOP is not. They are standing by Trump, either openly and defiantly, or meekly and abstractly, using dog whistles like wanting to count “legal votes,” because as much as party elites might want to jettison Trump, neither Donald Trump nor the base of Republican voters will let them.
Donald Trump will be the first former president not to retire, more or less, from political life since Teddy Roosevelt. He will not repair to Mar-a-Lago, watch Shark Week, and get to work on his memoirs. He has neither the financial nor psychological ability to do so. Instead, Trump will tweet. He will call into the cable shows. He will cultivate an army of followers who can be mobilized and monetized. What he will do with these followers is unclear, but also beside the point. Whether he starts Trump TV, a new vitamin business, or a 2024 campaign, he will want mastery over as large an audience as possible.
And that is why he refused to concede the election. His next move requires exporting tens of millions of followers with him to his new venture, and the way to do that is to keep pushing the notion that he was not defeated, that he has the secret truth, and that he will share it with his chosen elect for $9.95 a month.
You might laugh at the idea that Trump can convince America the election was stolen from him. But consider that while a quarter of a million Americans died from the coronavirus, Trump had the vast majority of Republicans convinced the pandemic was “overblown.” If Trump can pull off such a shameless act of blatant trickery, he can sell the idea that a few hundred thousand ballots were illegitimate; even Eric Trump—even Jared—could do it.
And that’s not close to the craziest things Republican voters believe. Of Republicans who have heard of QAnon, 38 percent say the conspiracy theory is at least “somewhat accurate.” I would not bet the milk money on it, but I suspect that three months from now a greater percentage of Republicans will believe in QAnon than believe that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.
A political party that includes a significant bloc of voters so deeply estranged from reality cannot be anything other than a source of mischief—and worse.
Hope for a different Republican Party invariably rests upon a few fundamental misunderstandings.
The first is that the Republican Party can be “reformed.” During the Obama years, there was a movement inside conservative think tanks to push for a version of conservatism that was more populist, more middle class, and less allied with big business and the Chamber of Commerce. This group, the Reformicons, hoped that the next generation of Republican leadership would be less like Mitt Romney and more like Marco Rubio.
They never imagined that the party and the movement they wanted to reform might turn into something closer to George Wallace and Father Coughlin than Liddle Marco. But that’s exactly what happened. Donald Trump is the reformed version of the GOP. There are still people at Washington think tanks who believe that the party can go back to what it was in 2014, just with a touch more populism around the edges. These people are living in a fantasy.
The second fallacy is that Trump would have been a passable president if not for “the tweets.” But Trump would not have been elected without them. “His people”—the ones at the boat parades and anti-mask rallies, the people shutting down the Garden State Parkway and shooting paintballs at protesters in Portland—voted for him and remain loyal to him even now because of the tweets.
If they cared about populism, or crushing Goldman Sachs, or building The Wall, these people would have been up in arms. But what they really cared about was that Trump was willing to stand up for the Very Fine People who marched in Charlottesville and tell the uppity congresswomen to go back to where they came from.
The final fallacy is that Donald Trump is a Republican. He is not.
He is, in a very powerful way, the owner of the Republican Party. Previous heads of our major political parties have been stewards of the institution. They had beliefs aligned with the ideological composition of the party, and they sought power in order to turn those beliefs into policy. When their time on the stage was done, they exited so that the next leader could shepherd the party. They might exert some lingering influence through donors or alumni, but they saw their work as completed, and they moved on.
Trump, on the other hand, has no ties to the Republican Party. He mounted a hostile takeover of the GOP because he alone understood what Republican voters wanted. They wanted the spirit that had animated his birtherism gambit: a politics devoted not to policies and ideologies, but to grievances and combativeness.
One of Trump’s insights was that these voters had become fully postmodern in that they no longer wanted outcomes. They wanted feelings. And when Trump offered them the pure, uncut catharsis they craved, they offered him their loyalty, and ensured that the party would remain his, no matter what.
The people waiting in the wings to try to take Trump’s place—Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, or even the hapless Ted Cruz—believe that they can succeed by offering populist policies without Trump’s cruelty and contempt for the rest of America. They think that if they can only convince Republican voters that they really will take on Big Tech, then the party faithful will rally to their banner. True Trumpism has never been tried!
Four years from now, these pikers will discover the truth: that the cruelty and contempt are not just the essential ingredients of Trumpism but exactly what Republican voters hunger for. They don’t want deregulation, or a lower marginal tax rate, or even The Wall. What they want is the liberation to talk freely about the people they hate.
Four years from now, another group of eager senators and governors will get crushed while seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Maybe they will lose to Donald Trump himself. Maybe to Don Jr. Perhaps to a glib cable TV host.
Maybe then they’ll understand that there is no going back.
It is telling that the next Congress will have more Republicans who have flirted with QAnon than those who opposed Trump. That Mia Love and Trey Gowdy have been replaced by Marjorie Taylor Greene and Mad-son Cawthorn. That Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham survived Trump’s presidency while Jeff Flake and Bob Corker did not.
Republican elites want very much to turn the page on Donald Trump following his loss. But then, they’ve wanted to turn the page on him since he announced his campaign in 2015. They do not have any say in the matter, because their party now belongs to him. And the party belongs to Donald Trump because he has delivered to Republican voters exactly what they want.