Whether Donald Trump wins or loses the November election, his ideologies have effectively infiltrated the party of Lincoln. It will never be the same.
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For the first time in almost four years, many have been allowing themselves to ponder “what ifs” that don’t involve the horrifying, near certainty that Donald Trump wins a second term. Indeed, the numbers are such that politicos, pundits, and ordinary citizens have been asking what happens if he loses by a large margin in the national vote, and in particular, what happens to the Republican Party if 2020 is another blue wave that sweeps Democrats into control of the House, Senate, and presidency?
A sane party political leadership would take a loss of that magnitude and coupled with four years of Trump-induced chaos to engage in self-examination, and a resolution to change. Realistically, however, one can expect them to only double down on the strategies and rhetoric of the past four years, along with no apologetics for what happened.
An electoral blowout is looking increasingly likely. Donald Trump’s campaign is in deep trouble. Former Vice-President Joe Biden’s lead in polling has been steadily widened over the past three months—consistently north of 8 points, and often double digits. No incumbent president in modern times has come back from a hole this deep and this late in an election cycle. Trump’s team knows it’s failing—this week Trump himself demoted campaign manager Brad Parscale, and elevated Bill Stepien to replace him.
One can sense the panic in Trump’s messaging, too. Instead of attacking his opponent as “Sleepy Joe,” the president describes him in apocalyptic terms usually reserved for describing the actions of newly installed communist dictators. According to Trump, Biden will abolish the suburbs, guns, religion, the police, ICE, and cash bail. This fear-mongering about the suburbs is a tactical recognition that the former vice-president holds a historic lead there.
Democrats react to this polling the way combat veterans react to fireworks. They have severe PTSD when it comes to election forecasting after polls missed the margin in 2016 by approximately 1.3 percent. There was former FBI Director James Comey’s “October Surprise” announcing he was reopening the criminal case looking into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. Trump then won exactly the electoral college votes in states he needed to by the narrowest of margins while Clinton underperformed in the states she could least afford to.
However, this isn’t 2016. Biden isn’t Clinton, his lead is twice as large and far more stable. The Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) has made inroads with white people. The COVID-19 pandemic looks like it will continue to ravage the American populace through the election and beyond, while Americans increasingly disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic. Unemployment is above 11.1 percent, and without swift action by the Republican-controlled Senate prior to the election in the Fall, a homelessness crisis looms. Americans could be facing another financial sector meltdown due to mortgage defaults.
In other words, the fundamentals are probably only going to get worse for Trump and the GOP between now and November. So, what will the GOP do if November is a blowout?
The answer is: probably not much. Republicans will be able to rationalize away their losses, and the GOP base will aggressively push back against any attempt to change. The party went through this same drill in 2012 with their election “autopsy report.” However, instead of making the tent bigger, the party leadership doubled down on the politics of “us vs. them” in 2016.
Rationalizing the loss will come in several ways. Should the Democrats win the national vote overwhelmingly, it won’t translate into Senate seats or electoral college votes due to polarization. Despite there being 12 Democratic seats and 23 Republican ones, it will be an uphill fight for Democrats to win back control of the Senate. If they do, they will only have a bare majority of 50, possibly only 52 seats.
Because of regional polarization, the electoral college, and “wasted votes,” the presidential election will end up looking a lot closer than it really was. In 1988, Bush won the election by 7.8 points and received 426 electoral college votes. In 1996 incumbent President Bill Clinton won the national vote by 8.5 points and received 379 electoral college votes. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama won by 8.5 points and received 365 electoral college votes. As of July 14, most of the forecasts show Biden winning by 8-9 points, and getting an average of somewhere between 279 and 353 electoral college votes. (Best guess is 334).
Then there’s the “black swan” aspect to 2020. It will be easy for Republican strategists to write off both Donald Trump and COVID-19 as “once-in-a-century” calamities. They’re not entirely wrong: back in February before the danger of the pandemic sank in, betting markets believed the president was well on his way to a second term in an election they believed would look much like 2016.
Repeatedly asked by journalists, including in a July 19 interview by Fox News host Chris Wallace if he’d accept the electoral outcome, Trump is refusing to say if he will honor the results of the election, and has repeatedly claimed (without justification) that the 2020 election will be riddled with fraud because of undocumented immigrants and mail-in ballots. Republican legislators, strategists, and media outlets will echo this, creating confusion among independents, and likely lead to legal challenges that leave the GOP, and the base, feeling that the election was “stolen.”
Thus, GOP strategists are likely to believe that few, if any, changes are needed to win next time. They will likely believe that a GOP candidate with the same basic views and messages as Trump will be likely to win the next time around. Simply flip a couple of swing states that aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, and they’re back in the White House.
But, even given that analysis might be incorrect, GOP hardliners and party leaders couldn’t change even if they wanted to. Donald Trump is like Frankenstein’s Monster: the Republican party created it by cultivating a base that is utterly divorced from reality, and eventually, it broke free and ran amok. The RNC has no way of steering their base or reining it in. Outlets like Fox News, OANN, and Breitbart have a business model of outrage driven agitprop meant to continually stir up fear, outrage, and distrust of establishment Republicans.
Going into November, there are a raft of Republican candidates for the U.S. House who believe in the QAnon conspiracy theory that “Democrats and even fellow Republicans [are] beholden to a cabal of bureaucrats, pedophiles and Satanists.” Many of them are running in gerrymandered districts where a win is a likely outcome regardless.
At the same time, moderate Republicans are abandoning the party.Gallup polling found that the GOP is hemorrhaging people who identify as Republican, increasing to a historically high gap of 11 points. What is left are the true believers who support Trump, and everything he stands for, no matter what. Ultimately, these are the people who will decide the direction of the party.
This base is overwhelmingly rural, white, and evangelical (or hardline Catholic). They categorically reject that racism is a real problem. They don’t want a pluralistic society. They want to draw a hard line on undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. They’re hold outs who still want a win in the culture war over same-sex weddings, “Happy Holidays,” and a religious right to take government money while not bothering with civil rights laws.
It doesn’t matter if the RNC wants to make the party bigger; the current base will continue to vote for people who absolutely do not. Michael Steele and Reince Priebus both realized this after they tried, and were exiled to the political equivalent of Siberia. George W. Bush ran as the conservative alternative to McCain in 2000, and now he and his entire family are considered way too liberal.
The 2020 Republican Party platform is identical to the ultra-conservative 2016 platform, complete with constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, criminalizing abortion, and supporting “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ youth. There is no coming groundswell of moderates to take the party back: Trump has support consistently above 90 percent from self-identified Republicans. The nominee will reflect the desires of the Trumpist base.
The most often mentioned names for 2024 are Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Josh Hawley, and Senator Tom Cotton. Haley, while sometimes pragmatic, has been a staunch defender of Trump and called him “truthful.” Cotton and Hawley, however, represent a smarter, more disciplined extension of Trump’s brand of politics, described as “Trumpism without Trump.” This is in part why they are far more dangerous than Trump.
They are what the Republican base wants: white evangelical culture warriors who use racial dog whistles and grievance to exploit “us vs. them” faux populism while promoting further degradation of democratic norms. Let us not forget, Sen. Cotton penned a New York Times op-ed urging Trump to declare martial law. Today, Cotton’s vision for America is coming true. Federal agents in military camouflage are roaming the streets of Portland, scooping up protesters into unmarked vehicles without charge or due process, and beating non-resisting protesters.
Despite this, Hawley and Cotton are both part of the present GOP, and likely to decide its future.
The GOP won’t be pivoting back to the center after Trump. They’ll be following the same path towards democratic decline, but with more capable, competent, and terrifying leadership.
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