Post-Trump, the GOP Will Spend Some Time in the Wilderness

One way in which some Republicans hope normalcy may one day return is that Trump will eventually exit the stage without leaving a successor. That’s certainly the unstated premise of Jim Geraghty’s latest musings at National Review:

Vice President Mike Pence is clearly a wildly different personality, and it is easy to picture some Trump supporters finding Pence too nice, too vanilla, too establishment and too boring to truly continue “Trumpism” as a political agenda…

…There is no natural ideological successor, which suggests that if or when Trump retires after two terms, is defeated after one, is impeached, or however he departs the stage, there will be no one who will be able to bring together the same factions in the same way. How much will Trumpism influence American politics after Trump’s presidency?

I have two distinct strains of thought on this.

The first is that when President Nixon went down, his electoral strategy did not. The Southern Strategy was revived by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and has served as a template for Republican presidential contenders ever since. In other words, Nixon was discredited but his politics really weren’t. Using that example, we should expect future Republican candidates to continue efforts to hold together a barely adequate coalition based on white, working class, antiestablishmentarian grievance.

The second strain of thought is that the Watergate Era favored a continuation of Nixon’s politics in a way that our current environment does not. The establishment was temporarily vindicated, the media became heroes, and Congress embarked on a period of vibrant reform. But this hid that this was a period of deep decline for trust in our institutions. The lies of the Vietnam Era took a massive toll on how much trust people put in government. The exposure of the CIA’s family jewels and the FBI’s Cointelpro program and other abuses added to the public’s skepticism.

Meanwhile, the 1970s saw stagflation, two major oil crises, an end to the postwar economic boom, a decline in the power of organized labor, and finally, a foreign policy crisis in Iran that made us look impotent. While the way Watergate was ultimately adjudicated initially looked like a giant win, those gains were ephemeral. That is why the country was ready to give Nixonian politics a second look even when offered by a thinly credentialed B-List actor.

But the Southern Strategy was then in its infancy. It is now facing demographic doom. In fact, it’s accurate to describe the whole phenomenon of Trumpism as a kind of collective panic attack about that demographic doom. One obvious way to visualize the difference between today and 1972 or 1980 is to look at the Electoral College maps over time. The Southern Strategy brought the Republicans resounding victories in every presidential election, excepting 1976, until Bill Clinton broke its spell. But the Republican victories in 2000, 2004, and 2016 have been among the narrowest ever recorded. Two of them involved popular vote losses, and the other turned on the single state of Ohio.

Clearly, the strategy is gasping for air and will soon slip below the waves for good.

That doesn’t augur well for future Republican presidential candidates who seek to replicate Trump’s electoral success. But, of course, that doesn’t necessarily tell us what will happen. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis did not make enough of a course correction to stave off their humiliating defeats in the 1980s, and that’s in large part because the party base would not have tolerated it if they had made the attempt. Both were pushed to the left in the primaries, and neither of them was assured enough of winning the nomination to offer truly heterodox positions.

It may take a similar amount of time for the Republican base to come to terms with the fact that Nixon and Reagan’s politics are dead and will not be coming back.

Another factor here is that Trump is likely to be discredited in a different way than Nixon. Nixon was seen as a competent president who abused his power. When the Republicans suffered big losses in the 1974 midterms and went down to defeat in the 1976 presidential election, it wasn’t seen as a repudiation of Nixon’s policies so much as his character. Jimmy Carter told the American people that he would never lie to them.

The electoral losses that the Republicans suffered in the 2018 midterms are already being blamed on Trump’s policies more than his character. His threat to pre-existing conditions coverage, environmental extremism, inaction on guns, child separation policies, and xenophobic campaign messaging are mostly in line with Republican orthodoxy and rhetoric, even if they may be more extreme than has typically been the case. Nonetheless, Trump is taking heat for leading the party out of the mainstream and costing them critical support with women, college-educated people, and suburbanites.

Another way of putting this is that in the 1970s, the GOP could replace the scowling Nixon with the more genial Ronald Reagan and go on pursuing a racially polarized law and order platform with great success, but there’s little prospect that the GOP can get rid of Trump and keep his policies without suffering shattering defeats.

In some ways, Trump’s failings are masking conservatism’s failings. And this should be clearer if we stay focused on the fact that Trump let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell largely define his legislative agenda during his first two years in office. His policies are unpopular because the Republicans’ policies are unpopular.

So, in answer to Geraghty, the future of the Republican Party without Trump is likely to be bleak. Just as with Nixon, the party will suffer a lot of splash damage that rightly or wrongly will bring them distrust and discredit with the American people. But, unlike with Nixon, they won’t be able to simply find a more agreeable messenger for an ascendant political movement. Conservatism is reaching the end of its life cycle, just as the FDR/Truman/JFK/LBJ Democratic Party reached its end cycle in the late 1960s.

It took the Democrats a very long time to find a path out of their wilderness, and I expect that the Republicans will take a similar amount of time to remake themselves.

The final irony is that the McGovern coalition, that went down so hard in 1972 that it traumatized the left for generations, is now pretty much the mainstream of American politics. There’s zero prospect that we will be saying the same about the current GOP forty-six years from now when the 2064 elections roll around.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.