Trump's Still Outside the GOP Establishment. That might matter more than you think.
The past couple of weeks have produced some very ambiguous news about the future of Trump and the GOP. One of the most prominent interpretations of the surprising midterm red “ripple” – as opposed to wave – has been the poor showing by Trump-endorsed candidates. Candidates either hand-picked by Trump or very consciously adopting Trumpist politics went down to defeat in competitive states across the country – New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania. The “America First” slate of candidates for Secretary of State mostly crashed and burned. It was not only not a good night for Trumpist politics, it was the kind of electoral repudiation for racist and anti-democratic appeals that the pro-democracy coalition has been hoping for for years. It was, in many ways, the night that observers expected on election night 2016, and seems to have taken a bite out of the narratives that emerged from that election about the appeal of Trump’s brand.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. On Tuesday night, Trump announced a third bid for the presidency. Media opinion was both similar and different from what followed his 2015 announcement. On the one hand, major media figures expressed boredom and disinterest – very different from the sideshow that drew journalists’ attention seven years ago. On the other hand, elite dismissiveness had a familiar ring to it – and we all remember how well that worked in 2016 when TV talking heads and the folks at the National Review pointed out that Trump wasn’t a qualified or serious candidate.
This leaves those of us in the commentary business with a dilemma about how to react. Obviously, most of us dropped the ball in 2016… with the nomination and again in the general election. But how do we think analytically about Trump’s chances, and how they’re shaped by his evolving relationship with the Republican Party?
My thoughts on this are partly from a chapter I’ve written on party politics for an in-progress volume on the Trump Legacy (co-edited by myself, Bert Rockman and Andy Rudalevige, with a terrific roster of contributors). The main point I want to make here is that while the story is usually framed around Trump’s remarkable hold on a party he wasn’t a member of 15 years ago and had no past history with, the frame should be flipped. The friction between Trump and the establishment GOP is always part of the story, even when it isn’t the biggest part of the story. This is the unspoken premise of all of these stories – it seems to be Trump’s party, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t be. But the cracks in the foundation of the coalition are always there.
In order to think about how this might work in 2024, we have to think about how it worked in 2016. There are 2 frameworks to understand how Trump won the 2016 nomination, and both are important.
Framework 1 is the party elites vs. party voters one. This one has produced a lot of scholarship and commentary about who actually holds power within the party coalition, about the differences between party leaders and voters and about the limitations of parties to address such a crisis or have any legitimacy to do so.
Framework 2 is about coordination – that the GOP could have defeated Trump in the primary if they’d coordinated on an alternative. If 70% of Republican primary voters wanted Trump, then the coordination point would be moot. And that could happen, especially if Trump’s announcement clears the field. But seems just as likely not to, and newly reelected Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been gaining on Trump in some polls. Most likely, coordination will matter again.
In some ways, the 2016 election was an important lesson to both parties about the importance of acting like a political party and trying to work together. It broke the individualist fever of the 80s and 90s a bit. And if this continues, the persistent daylight between Trump and Republican Party leaders might create some powerful incentives to coordinate on a Trump alternative. Three features of Trump’s tense relationship with establishment Republicans are worth looking at.
1. Trump sets the terms of debate… by constantly doing weird and objectionable things. In my forthcoming chapter, I describe this as “leadership by dilemma.” Trump exerts control over the GOP and its agenda by forcing them to respond to him, thus ensuring that he’s always setting the terms of debate. But without either the novelty of the first presidential bid or its nods in the direction of more economically liberal policy, there isn’t much that’s of broad appeal. Prominent Republicans are constantly in a position to have to respond to things like white nationalism, anti-immigrant language, or election denialism. While it’s been successful at crowding out other figures and perspectives, and thus setting the agenda, it’s possible that Republicans who haven’t relished this experience will have some incentive to coordinate against it.
2. Trump hasn’t really build the coalition. There are arguments that the 2020 and 2016 elections saw some Republican gains with Black and Latino voters – but these groups are still pretty solidly Democratic. Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory was tied to the diploma divide and the movement of the much-storied, elusive “white working class.” The educational divide is a real and interesting political development, but the pivotal gains in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have been uneven and somewhat ephemeral. Taken together, these two developments look less like assembling a new majority and more like waiting for opportunities to slice up the Democratic coalition. This is a playbook that can win elections sometimes, but looks decidedly like what an opposition party does.
In the meantime, see point 1 – every time Trump or his closest adherents do something that violates basic principle of democracy, the coalition shrinks just a little bit. It’s never the mass exodus that liberal commentators and academics want. But forcing allies to defend things they don’t want to defend, while taking unpopular stances that alienate some swing voters and galvanize opposition is not a way to build a stable majority. The Trump movement has never been a majority-focused one, and it shows.
3. We now have a somewhat clear picture of the post-Trump Republican Party. People waiting for GOP elites to abandon Trump en masse and channel the spirit of George H.W. Bush are still waiting. But in addition to a small anti-Trump contingent, seemingly at least a bit empowered by the 2022 midterms, we have both what I’ll call the Trump Lite politicians – who embrace most of Trumpism, but not the most extreme forms of election denialism and insurrectionism. This group includes people like Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence. The other group, people who are interested in out-Trumping Trump, includes figures like DeSantis as well as Kari Lake. For any other ex-president, this would look like a pretty successful party legacy. For Trump, it looks like the success of his brand within party ranks has created a bunch of potential competitors with ambitions of their own. How these two groups relate to each other, and how many presidential contenders each produces, will determine a lot about how the next nomination contest unfolds.
None of this is definitive, of course. But I think we benefit from both asking more focused questions, and from flipping the frame around: the fact that Trump makes some Republicans uneasy matters, even as so many have embraced him.