Where Do Republicans Go From Here?

The year is 2021. The Kamala Harris Administration is in its first few months of power, with energetic help from Vice President Sherrod Brown. Democrats built on their 2018 takeover of the House with an even larger majority; having narrowly failed to regain control of the Senate with a 50-50 split in 2018, Democrats now control 55 Senate seats due to a much more favorable 2020 map. The Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling against extreme gerrymandering weakened much of the structural advantages of the Republican Party after the 2010 census, and the 2020 census results are coming just around the corner. Immeasurably weakened by a series of stinging indictments by Mueller’s probe, President Trump fired Rosenstein and replaced him with a lackey, and pre-emptively pardoned his chief lieutenants including Paul Manafort and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. But they still face charges from state prosecutors, and the President’s action provoked the newly Democratic House into voting for impeachment. The Senate, of course, refused to convict. Trump claimed vindication, but his presidency was essentially over. Attempting regain his footing, Trump began a war of choice in North Korea through a series of provocations and strikes, but North Korean President Kim Jong-Un did not take the bait and sought cover from China, who threatened World War III unless Trump stood down. Facing a revolt from his generals, Trump decided to declare victory. Some Republicans urged the President to step down and let Vice President Pence take over, but the Republican base’s loyalty to Trump prevented most of them from having the courage. In the end, Trump came out swinging and ran the ugliest campaign of racism against Democratic nominee Kamala Harris since the 19th century, only to lose by 200 electoral votes. The center-left stupidly convinced the incoming Harris Administration to avoid any further prosecutions in the interest of “looking forward, not backward,” but attorneys general in blue states refused to abide by that dictum, continuing the prosecutions and keeping Trump scandals in the news.

This is not some liberal pipe dream. Given the current course of events, the story above actually seems like the median probable outcome. The end result of this mess could be considerably more conservative–Trump could succeed in installing a fascist regime, however unlikely–but it could also wind up being considerably more progressive, with Democrats retaking the Senate in 2018, Trump resigning in disgrace, and Elizabeth Warren taking the White House, uniting the Sanders and Clinton wings with a forceful combination of both class and identity politics.

The question is what the GOP does at that point. It took the Republican Party a long time for the public to forget the horrors of the Bush Administration, and even then the amnesia can be overstated: Democrats did their very best to forget it ever happened after the Obama election and held no one to account for the misdeeds, and more importantly the Republican primary electorate thoroughly rejected the Bush model of traditional Republican politics in nominating Donald Trump. They wanted more overt racism and a rejection of Bush’s pro-immigration-reform stance, and they wanted to tack away from economic libertarianism and putting the interests of multinational corporations ahead of domestic jobs. Trump turned out to be an utter fraud on the latter, of course, but the Republican primary electorate wholly bought into his campaign promises on those issues. Moreover, most people didn’t really see the Bush Administration’s failures as a consequence of malevolence so much as sheer bumbling incompetence.

The Trump Administration won’t be so simple to wipe away. Most Americans despise Trump with a passion. They don’t just think he’s incompetent. They know he’s a deeply immoral and vicious human being embracing deeply immoral and vicious policies. People of color will not soon forget the Trump Administration’s treatment of them. Whereas Bush tried to whisper his prejudices in giving the white franchise to 2nd generation Hispanics and Asians to break up the Democratic minority coalition, Trump’s universal and obvious bigotry against anyone with a trace of melanin comes across like a bullhorn. The Bush Administration was not openly misogynistic except in the usual ways Republicans have always been, preaching love of fetuses of deregulated capitalism as a smokescreen for oppression of women. Trump, by contrast, is completely open in his disdain for half the population. Women notice. Anyone who cares about children being shot in schools, or about the environment and the climate, or about a responsible foreign policy (from either an interventionist or anti-interventionist angle!), or about the integrity of American elections from foreign interference, or about the maintenance of classical liberal democracy–anyone who cares about any of the norms most people hold dear in their government–cannot stand him.

And the problem for Republicans is that they have embraced him wholeheartedly. They have defended him at every step, and run interference for him as the walls have closed in. They have gone along with his worst instincts on immigration and white nationalism, and he has allowed them to run rampant on their worst instincts in giving away the American treasury to big business and their lobbyists in the form of healthcare repeal attempts and tax cuts for the rich.

How do they walk all of this back? Sure, they will try to pretend that Trump was just an interloper. But how will they do that? Their base will still be loyal to Trump. The radio shock jocks will still treat him as a hero. But they will all be on the record as having supported Trump at every step in the legislative process, from ACA repeal to tax cuts to immigration to the environment to the Russia investigation. And that’s just this year.

Do Republicans have a plan at all for the post-Trump environment? If so, it’s hard to see what it is. And that in turn makes this moment terrifying: if you have a dangerous opponent who is cornered, and you can’t see realistically what their next move looks like, something bad is probably going to happen. The GOP will either implode spectacularly as the shriveled party of a dying demographic, or it will attempt to hold power in spite of its unpopularity through anti-democratic means.

But it’s hard to see how it continues to function as a normal political party past 2021.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.