We have become well aware of the divisions in the Republican Party that formed in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the ugly turn of events on Jan. 6. With the dust just now settling from this worst-case scenario for the GOP that played out before our eyes, it seems that three basic strains of thought — all revolving around Donald Trump — are prevalent as the GOP tries to recover, reorganize, and retool for midterm elections already uppermost in their minds.
Some among the party rank-and-file want a third act from Trump. Others seek to keep him at a safe distance, acknowledging his support among the rank-and-file but fearful of what a re-emergence of Trump and his passionate followers might portend for the 2022 and ‘24 elections. Yet others retain undisguised anger at Trump, believing that his overheated rhetoric cost the GOP control of not just the White House but the Senate, and that placing the future of the party in the hands of the 45th president one more time would be an unmitigated disaster.
How can these three incompatible strains be reconciled in a party scrambling to redefine itself for the American people in time to win back what they just lost? They cannot.
Instead, the party has but one choice: define itself through the issues that have most animated its base voters in the present day. While most Republicans agree on certain basics, such as lower taxes, the advent of Trump introduced populist and nationalist strains to the GOP ideology, leading to a more broadly attractive party but also one that forces more difficult choices.
In examining the matrix of issues on the right, conservatives have long fought for reducing the size and scope of government. Populists emphasize better trade deals and no foreign wars. The more libertarian-minded focus largely on matters of individual liberty. Some are transfixed by immigration and border crises; others are not. Gun control is uppermost in the minds of many and absent among others. Foreign policy is critical to some and of only passing interest to others.
As party leaders consider how to reconcile these various schools of thought and handle Trump, the appropriate set of core beliefs, if not the ideal candidate, should actually be easy to determine. The party need look no further than the last time they sorted things out: their own presidential primary in 2016.
As they attempted to bring the era of Barack Obama to a crashing halt, Republicans that year put forward virtually every one of their first-tier candidates considered ready for primetime. Jeb Bush had done well as governor of Florida and embodied establishment politics as he sought to follow in the footsteps of two presidents in his own family. Ted Cruz was the hard-charging darling of many conservatives. Marco Rubio was a young, handsome Latino, labeled as a rising star with strong neoconservative credentials. Scott Walker was a hero in the GOP for his battles with public unions in Wisconsin. Added to the field were old reliables like Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum, along with a textbook moderate in John Kasich, a libertarian-leaner in Rand Paul, and wildcards Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. It was undoubtedly an impressive field, one of which the GOP and its followers were confident and proud.
And then Trump wiped them all out. And it wasn’t close. Walker saw the handwriting on the wall and dropped out before the first contest. Bush and Rubio flailed away futilely at Trump and embarrassed themselves. The rest of the field drifted out of the race one by one. Cruz was the last man standing but hardly laid a glove on the man who would become the 45th president. Four years later, Trump would go unchallenged in the 2020 primary seeking a second term.
The voice of the GOP rank-and-file could hardly have been more clear. But, you might say, that was then and this is now. Has the party not changed in these last five years? Well, after four years of Trump delivering on his audacious promises, support for his America First agenda actually may have grown even stronger among the tens of millions who voted for him. It is likely tempered by the events of Jan. 6 in some quarters, but those objections relate to Trump’s behavior — not his agenda and record.
Let this be a lesson — and warning — to the GOP as it prepares for 2022 and to the many hopefuls eyeing the 2024 presidential nomination. Trump might or might not run again, but the long shadow cast by his historic presidency will be front and center in the minds of Republicans across the land. And while many party officials and potential candidates have likely concluded that Trump the man should best be placed in the rearview mirror, they will be making a grave mistake to believe they can discard his agenda and return safely to the days of conventional establishment politics.
Read more from Tim Donner.