Published May 3, 2021
The most intriguing and perplexing political issue confronting the United States right now is the current state and future of the Republican Party. It has changed as dramatically and as quickly as perhaps any previous major party in American history. It is fundamentally different in political philosophy, tone and temperament than it was only a short time ago.
There are many ways to measure how much things have changed, but here is just one: Mitt Romney. A man of obvious personal integrity, he went from being the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, widely respected and fairly popular with the base, to today being something of a persona non grata among many within his own party, even being accosted by people who likely once voted for him.
Romney hasn’t changed; the Republican Party has.
It would be easy to point to former President Donald Trump as the only reason why, but the forces that drove these changes were in motion long before Trump rode down the escalator in 2015 to announce his presidential campaign. Trump’s bid coincided with populist elements that were once on the edge of the GOP but were suddenly moving to its center. Trump seized the moment. Once he won the nomination — and especially after he won the presidency — a transformation of the GOP was inevitable.
Yet even as Trump embodies today’s iteration of the Republican Party, the party’s own history suggests he need not be the party’s future. Time and circumstance can yet move Republicans in new directions. But rejuvenating the party will depend on examples of leadership, vision and a base ready to reembrace conservatism’s highest ideals.
The Republican Party has an impressive, admirable and even inspiring story. It was founded by former members of the Whig Party in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854, in order to stop the spread of slavery into the Western territories. Six years later it nominated Abraham Lincoln, the greatest president America has produced.
The Republican Party has estimable achievements it can claim, including the Emancipation Proclamation, school desegregation, conservation, the interstate highway system, a broad revision of the federal income tax and defeating the Soviet empire. In recent decades, Republicans have stood up for the rights of the unborn, religious freedom and a textualist judicial philosophy.
GOP leaders confronted dictators abroad and defended core institutions at home. Republicans spoke about America as an open, dynamic society. They were unembarrassed to talk about the blessings of liberty and limited government; about virtue, the importance of character (including in our political leaders) and cultural renewal. And as the 1980 GOP party platform put it, Republicans “treasure the ethnic, cultural, and regional diversity of our people. This diversity fosters a dynamism in American society that is the envy of the world.”
As a young man interested in politics, I was drawn to this Republican Party.
The first vote I cast was in 1980 for Ronald Reagan, inspired as I was by his vision for America and his political and philosophical commitments. I went on to serve in his administration, in the George H.W. Bush administration and as a senior adviser in the George W. Bush White House. For most of my adult life, then, I’ve been a loyal Republican, having spent more than a decade working on behalf of Republican causes and Republican presidents.
During that period, the GOP was hardly perfect. There were always rogue politicians and fringe elements. But party leaders — including presidential nominees — worked to tame and integrate those elements without succumbing to them. That has changed, and over a couple of decades some troubling mental habits have come to dominate a party to which I have devoted much of my professional life.
The politics of theatrics and entertainment — what the Roman poet Juvenal referred to as “bread and circuses” for the masses — has replaced a commitment to serious governing and policy ideas aimed at problem-solving. “(Republicans) are drenched in distaste for the actual practice of politics,” a leading conservative thinker told me a few years ago. He noted “an unspoken sense among conservative activists in particular that the activity of governing is somehow illegitimate.”
This corresponds with a widespread and corrosive — albeit occasionally justified — distrust of core institutions from academia and the media to government and the scientific community. The late Rush Limbaugh dubbed these the “Four Corners of Deceit.” As institutional mistrust has grown, several other trends gained strength. In the 1980s and 1990s, Newt Gingrich modeled a certain approach to politics that was belligerent, Manichean and helped partisanship become synonymous with blood sport.
Over time, the Republican Party became increasingly characterized by cultural grievance, a sense of victimhood and a siege mentality. This was precipitated, in part, by massive economic and technological transformations as well as significant demographic and cultural shifts. In addition, a lot of conservatives have understandably felt patronized and dismissed by progressive elite culture. Former President Barack Obama said the working class “cling to guns or religion” and Hillary Clinton casually tossed “half” of Trump supporters into the infamous “basket of deplorables.”
In 2016, the renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild, whose book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” documented her journey deep into conservative country, Louisiana, told me that a key to understanding tea party and later Trump voters was that many felt “dishonored” and “disrespected” by those in power. They saw in Trump a warrior to battle on their behalf, someone who would bring a gun to a cultural knife fight.
If you listened to talk radio during the late 2000s and into the 2010s, you would have detected a shift from the traditional conservative vs. liberal binary to an establishment vs. anti-establishment one. You were almost as likely to hear talk radio hosts vent about then-Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as Democrat Obama.
There was also desperation, even existential fear, among many Republican voters that their country was beginning to be taken from them. Michael Anton’s much-discussed essay “The Flight 93 Election,” drew an analogy between passengers storming the cockpit of the hijacked 9/11 plane (Flight 93) and the 2016 election. “There are no guarantees,” Anton writes in the essay. “Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
A poll earlier this year asked voters if they think the goal of politics is more about “enacting good public policy” or “ensuring the country’s survival as we know it.” Only a quarter of Republicans said politics is about policy; nearly half said it’s about survival.
These, then, were some of the tributaries that created a roiling political river. It is often said that Trump orchestrated a “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party. The better way to understand it is that Trump was the manifestation rather than the cause; that the party was changing before Trump declared his candidacy, and, seeing an opening that few perceived, he was able to take advantage of it.
Over time, as his power grew, he shaped the Republican Party more and more into his image. If it is to change, however, it will demand a new vision rooted in ideas that can unite right-leaning Americans and channel the passions of the base toward just ends.
It’s worth recalling that in the 2016 GOP primary, Trump faced an accomplished field of 16 competitors — a libertarian, social conservatives, sitting and former governors, sitting and former senators, a neurosurgeon and a business leader. But within a month of entering the contest he was leading in the polls. He won 10 of the first 15 contests, and he never looked back. His nomination was never really in doubt.
What Trump was selling, Republican primary voters were eagerly buying.
No one could say that they didn’t know what they were getting with Trump. For all his flaws — and there are many — he never sought to conceal them. Trump repeatedly stated that he wouldn’t change his approach. In this one area at least, Trump fully kept his word.
On policy, the GOP under Trump looked different than it has in the past in its attitude toward trade, deficits and the debt, limited government and reforming entitlement programs and in America’s posture toward adversaries like North Korea and Russia and its NATO allies. During the Trump presidency, the Republican Party became more protectionist, more isolationist, more hostile to immigrants.
But Trump’s most profound imprint on the Republican Party is in affect, in disposition, in temperament. Republicans, time and again, accommodated themselves to Trump’s corruptions; as a result, they became complicit in them. By the end of the Trump administration much of the Republican Party was animated by cultural and class resentments, gripped by fear and implicated in Trump’s brand of politics.
In some cases Republicans have been led down strange and dark paths. For example, nearly 30% of Republicans believe the fantastical claims by QAnon that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” It’s no surprise that with the help of powerful Republicans like Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist, was elected to the House of Representatives.
“They just legitimized a person that used tactics I would say 10 years ago, even five years ago, would have been abhorrent to the Republican Party,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, observed. “But … they know they can’t condemn that behavior because they know the base loves it.”
Despite his loss on Nov. 3, the Republican Party is Trump’s party.
Trump’s approval rating among Republicans in mid-February was more than 80%. In the same poll, 53% of Republicans said they would vote for the former president if the primary were held today. All the other Republican hopefuls are polling in the low single digits, besides Mike Pence, who received 12%.
In a recent interview Sen. Romney said Trump has “by far the largest voice and a big impact in my party.”
“I expect he will continue playing a role. I don’t know if he’ll run in 2024 or not,” Romney said. “But if he does, I’m pretty sure he will win the nomination.”
For his part, Trump has already said he’s eyeing another bid.
Polls show that anywhere from 68% to 75% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from him. (Trump’s own administration found that “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”) And despite Trump’s role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, three-quarters of Republicans say that they would like to see Trump play a prominent role in the Republican Party. Nearly 90% say Trump was not responsible for violence against the government, despite the Republican leader of the Senate, McConnell, stating, “There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
When it comes to demonstrating Trump’s hold on the GOP, as important as polling data is, this may be more telling: Several prominent Republicans who were critical of Trump in the immediate aftermath of the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6 have walked back their criticisms. Republicans who voted to impeach and convict Trump have not only been targeted by the Republican base and booed at conservative gatherings, in several cases they have been censured by their own state parties, and in the case of Rep. Adam Kinzinger, attacked by members of his own family for having joined “the devil’s army.”
The devotion of the GOP base to Trump right now is so strong, so complete, that even the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 hasn’t materially impacted his influence on the party. While Trump may no longer be president, what defines the GOP today is Trump.
But this could change with the passage of time. Trump is permanently banned from Twitter, he’s under criminal investigation and the 74-year-old is no longer commanding the attention of the nation like he did when he was president. It’s possible that by the time Trump decides on whether to announce a second run, a critical swath of the Republican Party will want to move on.
Some level of Trump fatigue is likely to set in even among some supporters. Many will defend Trump to their last breath and will express gratitude for what they believe Trump did for them. He championed their causes; he targeted their political adversaries. The ferocity of his politics was exactly what they were looking for. It not only energized them, but it also created a quasi-religious connection to him. But even loyalists may not see another run as prudent. The former president did what he needed to do, they might say, and he did it with gusto; but now it’s time for him to allow others to step forward.
The danger for the GOP is that those who hope to succeed Trump could lead the party into even more appalling places, since there are indications from focus groups that post-2020 election, a sizable group of Trump voters are more inclined to embrace conspiracy theories and they are becoming more, not less, extreme.
Importantly, there are several influential figures within the Republican Party who are determined to see the GOP move beyond Trump, and they have this argument on their side: The Republican Party at the national level has been shut out of power after a single Trump term. Today Democrats enjoy a rare double-digit lead over Republicans in party favorable ratings, and a recent Gallup poll found the largest Democratic lead in party affiliation over Republicans in nearly a decade (49% compared to 40%).
Those who want the Republican Party to go in a different direction than the one Trump has taken it are betting on a GOP committed to an aspirational American conservativism — a new narrative that captures people’s hearts and imaginations. But can a positive, pluralistic vision of conservatism really catch on? Can Republican voters be won over by a party that promotes economic growth and inclusive prosperity, social mobility and social inclusion, and that reforms broken and badly outdated public institutions?
Life is a theater of vicissitudes, as John Adams said, and that’s particularly true of political life. Moments change, people change, and so, too, do parties. The British Labour Party under Tony Blair was transformed from a radical party that was consistently defeated from the late 1970s-early 1990s to a centrist, modernized one that dominated British politics in the middle of the 1990s to the early 2000s. Bill Clinton took a Democratic Party that had been crushed in presidential elections in 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988 and won in 1992 as a “New Democrat.”
But what happened to the Labour and Democratic parties three decades ago wasn’t inevitable; it required individuals to rise up and blaze new paths — and it required the parties themselves to be open to change, to welcome it. Right now it’s not at all clear that the base of the Republican Party wants to be de-Trumpified; the question is if and when that moment will arrive, and whether Republicans of stature can accelerate the timeline. Among the most encouraging places to look are Republican governors like Utah’s Spencer Cox and Maryland’s Larry Hogan, who are reform-minded, serious about governing and agreeable. They don’t view politics as a cage match. They’re also quite popular in their home states.
A friend once told me it’s fine to be a theoretical pessimist but we should be operational optimists. Men and women who want a better post-Trump Republican Party need to act on the assumption that their efforts will make a difference, and that each individual needs to ask what they can do. The road forward for the GOP starts with leaders and voters who show integrity, act courageously and speak words of truth in the face of political mendacity. It starts with us.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, worked in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations and was a senior adviser in the George W. Bush White House.