Published May 18, 2021
Has-beens, might-have-beens, and never-weres will not move the Republican Party past Trump. Their latest stunt is another group project — the “Call for American Renewal” — that threatens to form a third party. Once again, the Never Trump dead-enders will try anything to take back the GOP from Donald Trump; anything, of course, other than appealing to actual Republican voters.
Yes, the GOP needs a new leader. Yet the way to move on from Trump is to move on from Trump, instead of keeping the political world revolving around him.
Trump is now another Florida retiree. Kicked off major social media, he has started a blog that only draws a fraction of his former audience. While he still has influence, he is increasingly irrelevant to the day-to-day work of Republican politics in statehouses and DC.
Thus, there is a strong case to be made that ignoring Trump is the best option currently available to Republicans. Time and irrelevance may sap affection for Trump more than direct attacks ever have. In contrast, endlessly debating the Trump years — from the 2016 Republican Party primary to the capitol riot — will not move the party forward.
Although doing so may please the small portion of the GOP that wants to see Trump officially repudiated, ultimately, it will only keep rallying the former president’s staunchest supporters while annoying the rest of us. Few Republicans regret supporting Trump over Joe Biden, even if they think it will be time for someone new in 2024.
Keeping the focus on Trump only helps him maintain his primacy for Republican voters. But many of the former president’s enemies don’t care that they are helping sustain the man they purport to disdain. For all their talk of character, the current remnants of Never Trump include some of the worst creeps in politics, from the Lincoln Project’s sexual predators and grifters to Holocaust deniers. Such people are politically relevant only because of their opposition to Trump; if he fades, they disappear as well.
Thus, instead of keeping the spotlight on Trump, those who genuinely want a post-Trump GOP should focus on developing better options politically as well as in personality and policy. Importantly, any alternatives need to be superior in the estimation of voters, not just consultants, pundits, and ex-officials.
Promoting better political options than Trump and his imitators means finding winners, not a washed-up former something-or-other to announce he is leaving the GOP (again). Rather than attacking Trump’s past misdeeds — real, exaggerated, and imagined — the GOP’s future political champions will be found doing the work of politics; governing, legislating, and opposing the Biden administration as best as they can. Winners build alliances, not enemies lists.
Of course, winners are necessarily tough. Personnel is policy, but sometimes so is personality. Trump was less of a fighter (and a less effective one) than the image he cultivated and projected, but he understood that Republican voters want leaders who care more about their good opinion than what the Washington Post editorial board thinks.
This is why Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is having a political moment in the sun, and why Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota lost the trust of many voters when she caved to big business pressure on transgenderism. Conservatives need leaders who will work against the ruling class, not surrender to it.
These new leaders will win by developing and prioritizing policies that address the current needs of the nation, rather than the desires of the donor class. Political entrepreneurs succeed when existing institutions fail to adapt to new circumstances. Trump conquered the GOP because the public, starting with the Republican base, no longer bought what the party establishment was selling.
Thus, a successful post-Trump GOP will incorporate some of Trump’s populist instincts. It will adjust its agenda to appeal to the working-class voters that Trump brought into the GOP, rather than just relying on these voters fleeing from the ever-more-woke Democratic Party. It will avoid treating minority voters as caricatures and appeal to their actual beliefs and interests. Finally, it will stop trying to sideline the social conservatives whose votes the party needs.
In short, successful GOP politicians will know who their voters (and potential voters) are and what concerns them; an obvious political approach that is surprisingly neglected. Yet they will also avoid needlessly picking fights with their voters, including over the former president. They will be willing to criticize Trump when necessary, but they will not be monomaniacs on the subject — there is no need for them to denounce his every blog post.
The truth is that most Trump voters will acknowledge his flaws, but they get their hackles up at being berated for their votes. Doing so is self-indulgent and will only prolong Trump’s power over the Republican Party. There is plenty of room in the Republican Party for those who could never stomach Trump, but there is no space for a small minority that is determined to somehow purge the majority.
Setting aside the grifters and attention-seekers, those who seriously engage in projects such as the “Call for American Renewal” are attempting to satisfy psychological, even quasi-religious, needs. They are, after all, not satisfied with Trump being out of office. Animated by bitterness, they want judgment on him and anyone who supported him.
This explains why they launch doomed efforts that only help Trump retain his hold on the GOP. The point is not to succeed, but to confirm their own righteousness compared to the unregenerate who refuse the call.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.