It must pain Donald Trump, deep down in his showman’s soul, to have had his convention taken away from him. The arguable peak of his presidency, the hubristic State of the Union that preceded the coronavirus, raised the reality-television elements of the address to new heights — reuniting a military family! Bestowing a Presidential Medal of Freedom! You can only imagine what brazen gimmicks, what WWE stagecraft, Trump would have rolled out for a convention taking place in normal times.
Alas he has only four days of speeches via streaming video, the absence of cheering crowds itself an exhibit of his administration’s coronavirus failure. And for members of his party privately pining for his evaporation or feeling their way back toward pre-Trump positioning, the diminished convention can’t help but feel like a hopeful thing — instead of a showcase for Trumpian power, a weeklong indicator of its ebb.
That hopefulness is misplaced. Trump could still win reelection, and his convention is irrelevant to a comeback that mostly hinges on what happens with the pandemic between now and Election Day. But even if he loses, his power over the Republican Party will probably ebb only slowly, if at all. His allies and sycophants will have every reason to maintain a court in exile. His enemies and frenemies in the mainstream media will continue to elevate him for the sake of ratings and attention. And the man himself will seek the spotlight as assiduously as ever.
The knowledge that Trumpism has delivered — about what is possible in American politics, what Republicans will vote for and accept, what conservatism can accommodate — will not simply disappear. It may go underground for a time, if there is a temporary restoration of Republican politics as usual under a Joe Biden presidency. But the lessons will still be there to be picked up, the truths exposed hard to suppress. Any future Republican who seeks or occupies the presidency will have learned something from the years of Donald Trump.
But what they learn will make all the difference. Here are three different ways that the GOP could remain the party of Trump long after he is gone.
Trumpism as a governing agenda
First, Trumpism could come into its own as an ideological agenda, a genuine policy alternative to both left-liberalism and the zombie Reaganism that the Republicans offered before Trump’s advent.
In this scenario, Trump’s successors would learn two lessons from his rise. First, that Republican voters aren’t necessarily wedded to ideological nostrums about limited government, and so a politician can succeed in a Republican primary by running, as Trump did, against elements of movement-conservative orthodoxy. Second, that the sustained failures of the establishment center create a practical need for a policy agenda that is populist in the best sense — it would defend and rebuild the decaying America that exists outside the coastal metropoles, tech hubs and university towns.
This agenda would start with ideas that Trump campaigned on in 2016 and then abandoned or only half-pursued: not just infrastructure spending, but a self-conscious industrial policy to bring back the capacities and jobs that America has lost to Asia. It would follow his rhetoric rather than his administration’s lawyering and make peace with universal health insurance. It would pick up the most populist pieces from his tax bill and build on them, finding ways to transfer tax advantages to working-class families and away from blue-state rentiers. Its watchwords would be “work and family” instead of “you built that,” with real support for wage-earners and child-rearers instead of hazy sentiment about entrepreneurs.
On foreign policy it would follow Trump’s public posture toward confrontation with China rather than imitating his trade-negotiation gestures of appeasement. It would follow his instincts and withdraw (assuming Biden hasn’t already) from Afghanistan and jettison the fixation on regime change in Iran. There would be no grand crusade for democracy: Instead there would be alliances of interest (including, yes, with Russia) aimed at the containment of Beijing.
Finally, this kind of future-Trumpism would shift the grounds of the culture war — with stronger overtures to conservative-leaning minority voters (a strategy Trump has pursued when he isn’t race-baiting) and an aggressive agenda to reshape universities, using the power of the purse and the rhetoric of ideological diversity.
If successful, this strategy could help the Republican Party escape its current demographic trap and win majorities again — as a party of the pan-ethnic middle class, not just a shrinking, aging white base.
Trumpism as permanent minority rule
But just because something makes political sense doesn’t mean that it will happen. And if there is anything we’ve learned over the nearly 20 years since Ruy Teixeira and John Judis prophesied an emerging Democratic majority founded on demographic change, it is that the combination of a Democratic Party that keeps being pulled leftward and a Republican Party with strength in rural states — and thus the Electoral College and the Senate — can keep the GOP competitive even if it doesn’t win actual majorities.
Unite this electoral reality with Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies — his obsession with voter fraud at the expense of voting rights, his Twitter authoritarianism — and you can imagine another way that the GOP remains Trump’s party after he has gone. Instead of developing his populism to build a new majority, it could develop his anti-majoritarianism to sustain its own power even under demographic eclipse.
This kind of evolution would start with opposition to Democratic attempts to admit new states (and new senators), add extra justices to the Supreme Court or expand automatic voter registration and early voting. But Republicans could also mount a counteroffensive to lock in their current advantages — expanding voter-ID laws and making them stricter, pushing for House apportionment to exclude noncitizens, even trying to set up Electoral College-like systems for statehouse elections in states that might trend left.
You can see a dangerous cycle here, where the resilience of a counter-majoritarian Republican Party further delegitimizes the system in the eyes of Democrats, who become more radical in response, pushing us toward some stress point that is far more serious than this month’s war over the post office.
I have spent much of the Trump era arguing that he is too feckless and incompetent, too much of a buck-passer and coward, to represent an authoritarian menace in his own right. But even if there are limits to how far the party will go with him — witness the swift disavowal of his election-postponement speculation — he has clearly habituated many of his supporters to a “caudillo” style, a politics of enmity, a sense that transferring power to Democrats is like letting suicide bombers seize the plane.
So it is hardly fanciful to imagine a Republican successor who maintains the authoritarian style but drops the fecklessness. Put that kind of figure in charge of a party organized around holding power without majority support, pit it against a Democratic Party nurturing fantasies of an American “color revolution” — in which mass protests and even military intervention force out a right-wing government — and you could have a constitutional crisis sooner rather than later, and a Trumpian legacy that is very dark indeed.
Trumpism as virtual reality
But there is a final potential afterlife for the Trump era, in which it turns out the essential substance of the Trump phenomenon isn’t populism or authoritarianism, but a kind of playacting — all performative nonsense, cable-news illusions, online smoke and mirrors — that might itself be permanently appealing as a style of right-wing government.
Presidential gestures have always mattered, but Trump has demonstrated that you can hold together a political coalition even when those gestures are essentially illusory. You can issue seemingly sweeping executive orders that don’t do what you claim; take credit for real policies that predate your administration and pretend ones that never happen; and fight culture wars that are about symbolic issues rather than anything as real as marriage or abortion.
This style may be especially appealing to conservatives, who have reached a point of cultural marginalization where the kind of victory they seek is much easier to conjure in virtual reality. This is the point of certain kinds of right-wing infotainment, and certainly the point of QAnon, which as Matthew Walther of The Week has pointed out, exists precisely to invent “nonexistent victories” for the right:
“Trump has not replaced the Affordable Care Act or saved millions of good manufacturing jobs or remade our trade relationship with China, it is true. But no one expects miracles, after all. Besides, has he not worked tirelessly, if invisibly, to root out corruption, to expose the sinister plots of the cabal behind the Democratic Party, to remove anthropophagic pedophiles from the upper reaches of the federal bureaucracy? Has he not, in accomplishing all these things thanklessly, amid the persecution of his enemies in the liberal media establishment, shown us he cares? Whatever individual Trump supporters might believe about the actual facts of the alleged conspiracy, the bare outline of QAnon — Trump winning for them simply by existing and holding the office of the presidency — is in fact an accurate representation of their feelings about him.”
QAnon is thus a perfervid version of a future in which the GOP neither embraces a policy-rich populism nor lapses into constitution-threatening authoritarianism. Instead, the lesson that Republicans might take from the Trump era is that so long as much of the country fears a liberalism that is increasingly beholden to the left, Republicans can win their share of elections just on the promise to not be Democrats, to hold off liberal hegemony “simply by existing.”
And for Republican voters who want more — well, for them you can just make up some triumphs, whether banal (a new social-media executive order!) or exotic (a secret purge of pedophiles!), and trumpet them as victories worthy of Reagan, Lincoln or FDR.
In which case Trump could be a special kind of pioneer, and the party he shaped a digital-age novelty: the first political party to exist entirely as a simulation.
Ross Douthat c.2020 The New York Times Company