Is the Republican Party inching towards a post-Trump era?

A recent article in The Economist looking at polling and fundraising numbers from the United States makes this finding. While no claims are made that the Grand Old Party is actively distancing itself from the 45th President, sufficient evidence is put on the table to indicate that this possibility might be closer than many observers of American politics might think.

After all, Trump’s hold on the Republican Party seems unprecedentedly strong for the loser of a presidential election. While it’s usual for defeated presidential nominees of both parties to maintain some goodwill where their defeats were close and down-ballot elections didn’t eviscerate the party, Trump’s looming presence over the Republican Party is unlike anything we’ve seen in a century. Trump wasn’t just a nominee who lost a close election – he was a one-term president. Ask Jimmy Carter or George H. W. Bush: losing after a single term rarely whets the appetite of a party to give you another shot at the White House.

And yet, at the moment opinion polls show the race to be the Republican nominee for the presidential election of 2024 being Donald J Trump’s to lose.

That said, the earliest indications of a Republican Party seeking a post-Trump route to electoral success seem to be sprouting. Trump’s appeal to bear the Republican standard into the 2024 election remains high, but not as high as a few months ago. Candidates openly loyal to Trump are starting to see some slowing down in their fundraising compared to more traditional Republicans; and Trump’s lead over possible 2024 GOP opponents, like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, while still significant, is inching downwards.

Governor DeSantis finds himself in the fortunate and unfortunate position of having emerged as the likeliest successor to Trump. DeSantis has accomplished this through political tactics, strategy, and manoeuvres that set him head and shoulders above most American politicians aspiring to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A ‘good war’

When it comes to Covid-19, DeSantis has had a ‘good war’. His courage in deviating from the pro-lockdown global consensus without Florida suffering catastrophic loss of life has earned him near-hero status in the Republican Party. In fact, there are very good indications to conclude that DeSantis has managed to shield Florida from Covid-19 catastrophe exactly because of his anti-lockdown, pro-freedom approach.

Further boosting his standing as a rising star in the GOP, at least for the moment, is his ability to find himself a podium, a microphone, and a position critical of the mainstream media, Critical Race Theory, the culture wars in general, and in favour of good ol’ law-and-order principles, that electoral priority on which American conservatives have long occupied the high ground.

Ron DeSantis is a fascinating politician. Perhaps only Mike Pompeo, Trump’s second, and considerably more successful, Secretary of State, can lay claim to having found the magic bridge between traditional, Reagan-era classical liberal conservatism and muscular Trumpism.

Not even Marco Rubio, the eternally youthful-looking senior Senator from Florida, who preached blue-collar-friendly almost-Trumpism long before the 45th President was even officially a Republican, has managed to thread the needles so skilfully on merging these two seemingly disparate strands of Republican ideology.

It’s a tough gig: in favour of free markets, while putting ‘America First’; protective of civil liberties, while defending the police and standing for law and order; decent and churchgoing, while pugilistic amidst the heat of the culture wars against the ‘woke’. Where Trump managed success in the collection of latter statements with only mild successes, if any, in the former, DeSantis has shown an astounding ability to score high on both.

To DeSantis’s benefit and detriment, he has become the Republican Party’s most visible neo-Trump and anti-Trump – a political messenger that can promote the best of Trumpism without the weaknesses of 45. Governor DeSantis has exited the gate early and to great applause from his party, but he has painted a target on his back – for other prospective 2024 candidates in his party and Donald Trump to take aim at.

Extremism of the Democrats

The incompetence of the Biden administration and the extremism of the Democrats in both the House and the Senate, coupled with Biden/Harris readying themselves to run for re-election in 2024, have created circumstances immensely advantageous to the Republican Party for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

On the generic ballot for the upcoming November congressional elections, Republicans have shown leads last seen in the 1980s, enough to overturn the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. With the Senate currently split 50-50, the Republicans need only a single pick-up to gain majority control of the bicameral Congress and stand by while the Biden/Harris team flails and fails.

But a week is a long time in politics and November 2024 is by my reckoning even more than a week away. Failure for the Republicans between now and then is a very real possibility, and one that looms if the GOP cannot find that DeSantian, Pompean bridge between Reaganism and Trumpism. A GOP that can find a middle way between the traditional classical liberalism of Reagan conservatism and the no-holds-barred cultural muscularity of Trump Republicanism can genuinely offer an appealing option for voters.

What Trump achieved in getting blue-collar Americans on side is key to the GOP having a future. For too long the GOP of Bush 41 and 43 and Mitt Romney, the post-Reagan establishment, if you will, displayed an inability to face up to the fact that the very real consumer benefits of global free trade and free markets were not enough to compensate for the destruction of blue-collar sectors in America. Covid-19 seems also to have boosted significantly the almost protectionist, nationalist argument for some elements of localisation in key sectors for a country as geopolitically important and vulnerable as the United States.

Damaging, unfortunate and ill-advised

Trump’s protectionism was a damaging, unfortunate and ill-advised attempt to take seriously the plight of blue-collar America, the manufacturing and industrial heartlands that have been shown to be uncompetitive against cheaper foreign alternatives.

If this insight into the significant disenchantment of America’s industrial and manufacturing heartlands can find manifestation in government support that softens the blow of creative market destruction rather than intervention to prevent the creative destruction in the first place, Trump’s influence might position the GOP to become the party of both business and workers’ interests, relegating the Left to being the party of Critical Theory and Social Justice. Ron DeSantis has danced the tune of this two-step well, better even than Trump could ever manage while in office or on Twitter.

To this end, DeSantis is in an unenviable position. Does he take aim at Trump, risking the ire of the man himself and his almost fanatically loyal supporters? While risky, there certainly is a way to do this: take aim at Trump’s failure to build his wall to secure America’s southern border, criticise Trump for appointing Anthony Fauci, a figure  unpopular with the GOP base, portray Trump as well-intentioned but weak on North Korea, China, and Russia. Were DeSantis to launch these broadsides against Trump, he might land enough blows to make Trump sit 2024 out, enjoying his considerable soft power over Republicans.

Or does DeSantis pay respect to the 45th President, only jumping into the presidential race upon the senior lion’s retreat from the fight? The risk here is that Trump, sensing no opposition, runs again in 2024. If he wins, the possibility of a sustainable pact or bridge between the various GOP factions becomes ever more remote – Trump winning will afford him the leeway to pursue full Trumpism without moderation. If Trump loses, DeSantis has no guarantee that his popularity and his unique bridging brand of Reagan-Trump Republicanism will remain viable all the way to 2028.

Some measure of Trumpism

Whatever DeSantis ultimately chooses to do, it is clear that, at some point, the Republican Party will have to move on from mere Trumpism. To maintain the bulk of Trump’s electoral coalition, some measure of Trumpism will have to be maintained, while the party seeks to keep its broader Reagan/Bush/Romney-era coalition together.

So, is the Republican Party inching towards a post-Trump era any time soon? The blueprint for how to do it exists, so too does a route to an ideological synchronisation that could position the GOP for political dominance of decades.

But in the end, it will come down to the decisions of Ron DeSantis and his ability to land on the biggest, most pugilistic personality in American politics that rarest of things: a deadly, perfectly timed, smiling, respectful knockout blow that sends down a formidable opponent, to the adulation and cheers of the opponent’s loyal supporters.

[Image: Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

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Hermann Pretorius studied law and opera before entering politics and, latterly, joining the IRR as an analyst. He is presently the IRR’s Head of Strategic Communication. He describes himself as a Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal.