There were several ways he did it. He was decidedly and unavoidably unpresidential, rejecting the norms (and mores) expected of the position. He bluntly insisted he was not part of the establishment, pledging to “drain the swamp” even as he happily rolled around in it. And he has explicitly told his followers at rallies and interviews that he and they are the real elites – simultaneously bringing together Americans who are powerful in culture and politics and rejecting that power.
With Trump now on the sidelines — in not-so-subtle Spike Lee fashion during a Knicks game, anyway — the Republican Party is trying to figure out what his next phase will look like. The tension at the heart of this effort, however, is that Trump has coalesced a powerful anti-elite streak of grassroots political thought that first gained popularity with the rise of Sarah Palin during the presidential campaign of 2008 and flourished in the tea party era. How does the party establishment keep this energy engaged in Republican politics without also being centered around Trump?
At the outset, note that the idea that the party will not be Trump-centric is not necessarily the default assumption at this time. Polls have shown that Trump’s support is no longer as fervent among the Republican electorate as it once was, but the better quality polls don’t really indicate that his support for the presidential primary is waning. Such polls include different wording and candidates — and are, of course, very, very, very, very early — but there’s not much difference between where Trump is now and where he was a year ago. a year or even a few months. If the election were held today, it seems safe to assume Trump would be the nominee.
As the Post’s Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey reported on Sunday, the 2022 midterms will be a significant test of how the party moves forward. Many party members, especially those muted or drowned out in the Trump era, are seeking to reassert their influence. Meanwhile, the angry, anti-establishment arm of the right has splintered. This is partly because Trump has been pushed closer to the margins and partly because the ways in which opposition to the establishment can manifest has metastasized.
Consider the coronavirus vaccine. Trump would like to be the face of the vaccine effort, the salvation of the world to accelerate the availability of vaccines. He overstates the credit he is due, as in his own way, but by bringing up the subject he has also made himself vulnerable to the way vaccines have become a hotbed of anti-establishment anger.
While much of the rhetoric about vaccines is ostensibly about mandates (as in the case of the protests in Canada), opposition to vaccines is often rather simple opposition to something that “they” – scientists , the liberals, the government – want you to do it. When the Fox News hosts are raising skepticism about the effectiveness of vaccines, it’s not about mandates. It’s about running a counter-current narrative. So when Trump tries to walk the line between mandates (he opposes it) and vaccination (he is for it), he gets angry from his natural base. He sides with the elites who want fewer people to die of covid-19! What a sale!
This actually predates the election and the pandemic to some extent. The rise of QAnon was a Trump-adjacent consolidation of explicit anti-elite sentiment. Trump has worked, seemingly successfully, to keep the Q folks in the fold. After the election, however, conspiracy theories went in a thousand directions. Trump has tried to contain the sentiment, to keep his grip on this segment of the right, but it’s impossible because it’s often contradictory. Even within his team of lawyers, the idea that the election was stolen by voting machines does not go hand in hand with the idea that it was stolen with rampant illegal voting (which does not is not true, of course). Millions of Americans have been groomed to accept wild conspiracy theories as accurate, and so various peddlers sell a vast assortment of options.
This is an opportunity for the GOP establishment: if the substantial fringe is torn between various false beliefs, there may be space to consolidate around reality. But it works best in national and local races where the GOP has an advantage. It is useful for winning primaries in red districts.
The question is 2024. In a hard-fought national election, is there a Republican who can both soothe the nerves of less extreme donors and inspire conspiracy theorists to come out and vote? I mean, Trump can; his whole thing was to keep the loudest voices shouting the same while the donors and the establishment adopted the policies and approved the judges they wanted.
Some seem to think that the strategy used by Glenn Youngkin (R) to win the election as governor of Virginia could be the way forward, centered on opposing President Biden and fighting the culture war while making a speech discreet to Trump. Maybe it will — partly because being anti-Biden seems like enough for just about any Republican at this point. But it also depends on the absence of a primary candidate capable of effectively organizing the fringe, and the Virginia GOP, which held a convention to choose Youngkin, did not allow such a candidate to emerge.
One thing that seems clear is that the view taken by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (right) on CNN’s “state of the nation” on Sunday is unrealistic.
“The battle for the soul of the Republican Party,” asked host Jake Tapper — “are you losing it?”
“As I said, we have until 2024,” Hogan replied. “Right now, I think we’ve made huge strides because we’ve gone from about 80% wanting Donald Trump re-elected to 50%. That’s a huge drop.”
To the extent that this actually captures reality, which is not much, it does not indicate that moderate Republicans like Hogan are winning the battle for the soul of the party. It is a measure of the establishment benefiting from a breakup of the anti-establishment branch of the party. It was enough to keep the GOP leadership in power from 2010 to 2016, but it wasn’t enough to win the presidency in 2012.