At first glance it might seem that Donald Trump is on his way toward exile from the Republican Party’s base of power.
The party already seems headed to an internal civil war, GOP Senators are openly speculating about voting to convict him in the upcoming impeachment trial, corporate donors are fleeing in droves, and his approval rating is cratering. His post-presidency doesn’t appear to be on any easier footing, either: his social media reach has been curtailed, his brand has been severely damaged, his lenders are abandoning him, and he faces daunting civil and even criminal penalties on multiple fronts. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems ready to throw him overboard in an effort to salvage what remains the GOP’s reputation in polite society, his own Vice President is furious with him, and the fallout of negative press from the Capitol insurrection has only just begun. By any normal political calculation, Trumpism should be a spent force.
But normal political calculations no longer apply to the Republican Party, because the Republican Party does not operate by traditional political incentives. The GOP is continuing on a pathway to radicalization that began as far back as Newt Gingrich, if not Ronald Reagan and even Richard Nixon.
Trumpism is merely a stepping stone on that journey that began with dependence on the Southern Strategy to smash the FDR coalition and win white supremacist support, and continued via an unholy alliance with conservative infotainment from AM radio hosts to Fox News to Breitbart. The GOP also depends for continued power on efficient geographic distribution in gerrymandered districts and rural states that maximize white evangelical power. All of these factors ensured that the GOP would continue marching rightward with increasingly devastating consequences.
Evangelical, patriarchal white supremacists have grown increasingly extremist as their numbers have declined and the culture has turned against them. The culture that made Red Dawn a summer blockbuster in 1984 has lost its hold on mainstream America, and the nation is becoming ever more diverse and secular. Meanwhile, the overreliance on conspiracy propaganda infotainment to contain the GOP base in an alternate reality bubble has given the monster control over its former master. Today, Fox News no longer serves as a media arm of the Republican Party; rather, the Republican Party serves as the legislative arm of Fox News. And if Fox News won’t give its audience the dopamine hits they crave, their viewers will switch over to even more extremist networks like Newsmax or OAN that will tell them what they want to hear.
Thus, while the party’s institutional incentive as a whole may well be to jettison Trumpism in order to compete for majoritarian support, the actual incentives for its elected officials remain tilted toward further extremism. GOP voters continue to support Trump and want him to be the 2024 nominee–nor is it clear that even Trump going to jail would change that dynamic. Most GOP politicians are under far greater threat of being primaried from the right for not supporting Trump strongly enough, than they are of losing to a Democrat for hewing to him too tightly. Conservative voters are increasingly locked into wilder and wilder conspiracy theories. Many rural red states are only getting redder, and Republicans depend for control on ever more gerrymandered districts that minimize the possibility of moderation–and where Republican legislators operate in Biden-voting districts, the polarized environment means they need to appeal to base turnout more than crossover votes.
Finally and most importantly, the incentives of the infotainment media that functionally control the conservative base are not the same as those of the Republican Party as a whole. Conservative media need clicks, viewers and donations–and their grifts can operate just as effectively or more so if the GOP holds a legislative minority. If they don’t give their audience the outrage hit they want, the audience will move on. Not even the loss of corporate donors will do much: small dollar donations increasingly matter more than big money, and the GOP has shown itself perfectly capable of winning elections while being massively outspent by Democrats.
So much as McConnell and the institutionalists might want to pull back from the Trump debacle and consolidate their ill-gotten gains, it’s unlikely they will succeed. The extremism train is barreling down the tracks with momentum built from decisions that were already made decades ago, and there’s very little they can do to pull it back.
The great danger, of course, is that the inherent logic of the modern Republican Party is incompatible with democracy. The GOP will either hit rock bottom of powerlessness in its extremist unpopularity, or it will achieve authoritarian control of government. Temporary retreat toward moderate policy is the least likely outcome.