When Donald Trump descended the escalator on that fateful day in June 2015, he began the improbable process of taking over the Republican Party from presidency to precinct. Most of the press and political intelligentsia at the time treated his campaign as little more than a joke. Now, most Republicans consider him the savior of their party.
It’s hard to deny it: The GOP is now a reinvigorated cult of personality around Trump. He dispatched his opponents in the 2016 primary with ease despite the open hostility of most of the party establishment, marginalized or co-opted his opposition, and remade the party in his image. More importantly, he hastened a realignment that will be structurally advantageous for the GOP in Congress and the Electoral College for decades, even though Republicans are numerically inferior and shrinking across the country. Trump drove turnout among his ardent fans higher than expected and cut into Democratic advantages among people of color.
But Trump didn’t really take over or save the Republican Party. Trump’s greatest gift to Republicans is also his greatest curse: He gave them permission to be their worst selves. By liberating the GOP to embrace its most noxious impulses, he has breathed new life into the staid culture that nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney while destroying basic norms of public decency and weakening the guardrails of democracy. This has come at a devastating cost to the victims of the hatreds Trump fueled. Despite short-term appearances, unmasking the GOP base’s most vicious instincts might also be disastrous for the party in the long term.
It’s not that the animating ethos of the GOP was terribly different before Trump. It was the party of Watergate, Iran-Contra, the southern strategy, Willie Horton ads, Newt Gingrich, Brooks Brothers riots, Valerie Plame outings, Freedom Fries, Iraq invasion lies, Social Security slashing, Benghazi hearings, and Mitch McConnell–led Supreme Court seat theft. Simply put, the party was never fundamentally decent in any way.
Before Trump, however, it at least pretended to be. The party cloaked its inherent viciousness in Reagan’s sunny smile, baseball, Mom, apple pie, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. Since the turn of the civil rights era, the GOP’s id always belonged to Roy Cohn and Roger Stone, but it was carefully kept hidden behind a veil of cordial respectability. The Fox News era slowly began the process of unmasking—but even Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity tried to hide behind avuncular charm and high school quarterback looks, portraying themselves as the steady voices of decent, normie America.
All of that pretense is now gone. Today’s Republican politics is deliriously brazen and overtly cruel, finding its glory in taking and using power by any means necessary—and behaving openly hostile to both democracy and norms of decency. There is no good-faith attempt in Republican-controlled states or Congress to govern to solve problems. There is only an endless stream of legislation designed to secure anti-majoritarian power, harm Democratic constituencies, or get the attention of the culture-war-obsessed conservative media propaganda organs that actually dictate who thrives and perishes in the GOP. Stop the libs from taking power at all costs; own the libs however you can; get hits on Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN. There is nothing else. It worked for Trump—why wouldn’t it work for all the rest?
At the moment, Republicans don’t appear to be paying a price for any of this. The structural advantages given to rural conservative whites in virtually all state and federal elections are only growing bigger. Education and urban-rural polarization have given Republicans hefty, well-distributed benefits even before factoring in gerrymandering. The filibuster makes it practically impossible for non-budgetary liberal priorities to advance, while allowing conservatives an easy pass to get the tax cuts and judges they care about most. And the conservative media is reliably in the tank for Republicans, pushing the Overton windows and sanitizing the most extreme voices, no matter how horrifically they govern. Meanwhile, the “liberal” media is quick to pounce on Democratic politicians for even minor setbacks in an effort to prove their neutral bona fides, while consistently helping conservative media to marginalize effective progressive voices. So pessimism rules—and perhaps rightfully so.
But there is also reason to wonder if the Republican Party might not be digging its own grave. Politics is a fluid business. Few in the early 1960s would have predicted the enormity of the southern shift to the GOP. Democrats in the early 2000s would have been shocked to see their gains in the reliable suburbs and among mail-in voters by 2020. Who in 2008 would have predicted Florida becoming a consistently red state, with Georgia sending Black and Jewish Democratic senators to Washington in special elections? Coalitions shift rapidly, as do zeitgeists.
The cracks are starting to show. Trump is deeply unpopular by historic margins for an ex-president, yet he appears poised to hoist his flag for another presidential run. Other Republican hopefuls may or may not sit quietly by. Trump himself does bring heavy turnout among his dedicated base when he is on the ballot, but those voters are largely traditionally unreliable—and the GOP has traded much more reliable suburban voters for them. So far, there is no proof that the base will turn out in elections in which Trump isn’t on the ballot. At the same time, though, Trump’s divisiveness means that centrists, liberals, and leftists will walk over glass to vote when he is.
The Big Lie that Biden’s win is somehow illegitimate due to voter fraud is giving fuel to Republican attempts to steal Democratic victories in future elections through suppression and simply refusing to certify their wins. But it also appears to hinder Republican turnout when their voters don’t believe their votes will count.
Trump-fueled lies about mail-in ballots have destroyed decades of hard work by the GOP to build up easy absentee advantages, forcing Republicans to rely on risky in-person Election Day turnout strategies. The November weather has been kind to them in the past few election cycles—but it may not always be. California Republicans attempting to recall Governor Gavin Newsom lag heavily behind Democrats in mailing in their ballots—so heavily that the California GOP is trying to repair the damage through a doomed campaign to re-convince its own voters that voting by mail is safe. This is ironic: The U.S. Postal Service has, in fact, been largely dysfunctional over the past 15 months. It’s not due to Democratic voter fraud, however, but to Trump’s own postmaster general.
Republicans are also engaged in an anti-public-health campaign that can objectively be described as pro-COVID-19 and pro-death. Case and death rates are exploding in Republican-led states—including among children—such as Florida and Ohio. Republican governors and Fox News hosts seem willing to kill tens of thousands of their own voters and viewers, respectively, in large part to create economic headwinds for the Biden administration more than a year before the midterm elections. It could work. But it could also generate enormous public backlash as COVID-19 increasingly becomes the MAGA plague.
Then, of course, there are the biggest hot-button issues in the culture war: guns and abortion. Republican states have responded to national outrage over gun violence by going full Wild West with unregulated carry laws. In Texas, they’ve essentially overturned Roe v. Wade by deputizing citizen lawsuit vigilantes against women, abortion providers, and even rideshare drivers. Worse yet, federal courts filled with GOP appointees have decided to sit back and let it happen. The influence of radical evangelical pastors on Republican politics is only growing, with Bible-thumpers taking a larger share of the GOP stage at a time when the church itself is cratering in attendance and popularity.
This might all seem brilliantly, if diabolically, Machiavellian, but there’s a problem with a well-distributed anti-majoritarian coalition that wins elections despite being outnumbered nationally. It doesn’t take big shifts in the population or the turnout model to breach the walls. You can take over government by winning five-point margins in congressional districts and states. But not if those five-point margins suddenly become competitive due to turnout or coalition shifts.
Trump gave Republicans permission to be themselves. It “worked” for a time at the expense of the country, and it could allow them to dominate politics for decades to come. But the party may face a high price for allowing the cruelest and most vicious elements of American society to run rampant. It might take some time, but the Trump effect could very well backfire on them in surprising ways.