At the moment, Democratic elites are rummaging through the debris of the 2020 elections trying to figure out how the landslide many of them were confidently counting on disappeared into a razor-close presidential win and very disappointing down-ballot results.
But the pleasure Republican elites found in a relatively strong election that many feared might be catastrophic has a large orange underside: They are stuck in Trump Hell, unable to move on because of the president’s grip on their base and key elements of right-wing media and his refusal to concede. In general, they cannot move on until he does (though the number willing to do so anyway will continue to rise gradually like a three-toed sloth climbing a tree). And Trump’s relatively robust performance means they cannot write him off as a four-year aberration, even if the man finally slinks off the stage into a retirement clouded by the shadow of the hoosegow.
But some conservative opinion leaders are already looking forward to a post-Trump future where the viable things about the 45th president can be neatly separated from his troublesome persona. Here’s a representative fantasy from Kristin Tate writing in The Hill:
Imagine this: a Republican with the political positions of Trump, but without decades of tabloid fodder. A Republican who boldly challenges the biased media, without sparking the bandwagon effect of suburban voters eager to show their public disapproval of his latest action. If the GOP ran “America First”-style candidates who can message the platform with eloquence and effectiveness, the 2024 landscape will dramatically tilt in their favor. Cementing recent gains with nonwhite voters while winning back a share of college-educated whites, which shifted 6 percent away from Trump in 2020, would be well within reach.
If Trumpism can survive Donald J. Trump himself, what will it look like, and who will lead it? These are in most respects two sides of the same coin. Let’s look at some possible faces of Trumpism Without Trump:
The True Right-Wing Populist
No one would consider Donald Trump a systematic thinker or a consistent ideologue; his views on major issues of the day often change within a day of his own tweets. So one path for Trumpism might be someone who distills the impulses reflected and promoted by Trump into a real ideology with staying power.
A possible avatar of this development is Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who regularly draws liberal plaudits for a willingness to go after corporations for irresponsible conduct and exploitations of the masses. His “populism,” however, is of a thoroughly reactionary nature rooted in a pre-modern worldview that is less anti-capitalist than pre-capitalist, as I noted in an evaluation of Hawley last year:
Government-sanctioned culture war against private entities like those which control Hollywood and Silicon Valley is indeed a departure from traditional American conservatism. But it’s entirely consonant with a European brand of right-wing authoritarianism that drew on pre-capitalist strains of religion-based hostility to liberalism in economics as in culture, and contemptuously rejected modern liberal democracy while utilizing its institutions to seize power whenever possible. What makes Hawley fascinating and scary is how systematically he embraces this illiberal world view.
While Hawley’s strident cultural conservatism is right out of the textbook of hyper-traditional Catholics past and present, he is actually a conservative Evangelical with close ties to the Christian nationalists of the American Renewal Project. So he would be particularly attractive to religious conservatives so radicalized that they might regard the Christian right politics of Mike Pence as weak tea. And the Missourian may be around for some time: He’s only 40.
A Kinder, Gentler Trumpism
At a distant point on the spectrum from Hawley, it’s possible the GOP could return to the perspective of “Sam’s Club Republicans” such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who before Trump’s rise called on their party to reshape its free-market fundamentalism into policies reflecting the economic as well as the cultural interests of their white working-class electoral base. For them, Trump was sort of a fun-house-mirror reflection of the new direction they favored. But with Trump himself gone, perhaps less racist and nativist voices might rise to scratch some of the itches he abrasively inflames.
Possibilities include Florida senator and 2016 candidate Marco Rubio, who has followed the drift of his party into Trumpism without embracing some of its more dangerous authoritarian rhetoric; or possibly that supreme opportunist Nikki Haley, who has managed to stay on the tyrant’s good side while cultivating a reputation for independence and even decency.
A More Respectably Nasty Trumpism
There are those who will argue that a kinder, gentler Trumpism will fail to appease the martial appetites of MAGA-land, or its visceral appeal to those focused more on “owning the libs” than on the policies that drive liberals crazy. There is a brand of less crude but equally polarizing right-wing politics aligned with more orthodox conservative policy thinking. Pound for pound, no one can outdo Arkansas senator Tom Cotton for sheer rabble-rousing nastiness, as exhibited by the brouhaha he touched off earlier this year at the New York Times with his op-ed calling for deploying the U.S. military to cities experiencing civil unrest. His gold-plated résumé and adherence to old-school conservative values like debt mania and big defense budgets has earned him some fans in Republican Establishment circles.
Cotton is unproven in national politics and may need a personality transplant; he is about as relatable to swing voters as a scorpion. An alternative from the same school of maximum polarizers is Ted Cruz, who did finish a respectable second to Trump in the 2016 primaries, and can boast of his own brand of Ivy League elite-bashing.
A Media Celebrity Brand of Trumpism
Perhaps the politically salient feature of Trumpism isn’t “political positions” or even objective factors like Trump’s alleged economic prowess, but precisely the noisy bread-and-circuses he offers and the media dominance he has mastered. There is no one on the horizon that can match the particular mass celebrity he achieved over the years and especially via The Apprentice. But a media figure like Tucker Carlson who has titillated conservative audiences night after night might have a real advantage over conventional politicians who cannot completely get rid of the stench of The Swamp.
Trumpism With a Different Trump
The president’s dynastic tendencies are well known. And it’s possible the tight grip he is maintaining over his “brand” at a time when most defeated presidents are planning their libraries and memoirs could indicate he’s going to designate a quite literal heir in politics as well as business.
Transferring his political following to his deranged “Junior” namesake would be easier said than done, though the scion has been a MAGA-rally mainstay, and the horror that regular Republicans might express at the very idea would please both father and son to no end.
Arguably Ivanka Trump might combine dynastic appeal, pop-culture celebrity, and a “kinder and gentler Trumpism.” But her father’s creepy appreciation of her physical charms might be hard to shake.
The Old Trump in a New Bottle
For now the most likely future trajectory for Trumpism is with, not without, the mogul. It is possible, of course, that he will undertake the sort of rebranding pioneered by the “New Nixon” in 1968 — battening on manufactured contrasts with everything unpopular Joe Biden does in his early presidency, and obscuring the authoritarian image he forged and burnished for himself for so very long. Thanks to his narcissism and paranoia, and the strong likelihood that Republican leaders (if not followers) will be exhilarated by his absence, it’s unlikely he will go far away and then return, like Napoleon from Elba. It’s really hard to reinvent yourself when you are tweeting 50 times a day.