As the Republican Party reels from Donald Trump’s seditious effort to overturn Joe Biden’s election and the impeachment it will soon earn him, diagnoses of the party’s malady range from fatal to weakened to sick but purged and recovering. But it’s worth remembering this isn’t the first time observers thought the party was facing an existential crisis from which it might not recover.
In October 2016, for example, Republicans were running for the hills after it was revealed that their presidential candidate had boasted of being able to get away with sexual assault, using crude terms that had to insult every woman in America. Twelve years ago, after Barack Obama’s election and a Democratic congressional landslide, there was talk of the GOP being demographically doomed unless it undertook fundamental changes to recruit new kinds of voters.
So prophecies of disaster often don’t come true. But the moment in living Republican memory that most resembles what we are experiencing today occurred in 1974, when another disgraced president scurried toward Marine One in flight from the White House: Richard Nixon.
Then, as now, Republicans stuck with their embattled and scandal-ridden president for a long time before evidence of extreme conduct (e.g., Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape and Trump’s January 6 speech inciting the riot) wrecked their unity and confidence. Then, as now, the leader had to be pushed out the door. Then, as now, there was even talk of the GOP being displaced by a new third party (today, a Trumpist “populist” party, then a Reagan-led conservative party uniting business constituencies with blue-collar workers and Southerners).
But there are some very important differences in the condition of the GOP at the endgame of these two disastrous presidencies.
Trump Has More Rank-and-File Support
In the final Gallup survey before his resignation, Nixon’s job-approval rating among Republicans was at 50 percent, and 31 percent of Republicans favored his resignation. According to a NPR/Marist survey, Trump’s job-approval rating from Republicans is at 77 percent (with 64 percent “strongly” approving), and only 15 percent of Republicans support steps to remove him from office before his term expires.
“Moving on” from Trump won’t be as easy as it was for Republicans to put Nixon in the rearview mirror, in part because they retained the White House under his successor, Gerald Ford, and in part because there was zero fear of Nixon making another comeback.
Republicans Were Consolidating an Enduring Majority Back Then, Not Now
While Nixon’s disgrace and resignation temporarily plunged his party into crisis (exemplified by the “Watergate Election” midterm Democratic landslide that occurred less than three months after Nixon left office) it’s important to remember that he won a second term by a landslide in 1972, and that the Democratic Party was in the middle of a chronic ideological crisis. Democrats won 43 percent of the popular vote for president in 1968 and 38 percent in 1972. They got a temporary respite when one-time southern voters and those disgusted by Watergate gave Jimmy Carter 50 percent in 1976, but they were back down to 41 percent in 1980 and didn’t win a popular-vote majority again until 2008. Republicans didn’t have much rebounding to do at all: They came within an eyelash of winning in 1976 and didn’t lose the presidency again until 1992.
Now it’s Republicans who are on a long-term popular-vote losing streak in presidential contests (from 1992 through 2020, with the exception of 2004). And the GOP is famously on the wrong side of demographic trends that are shrinking its coalition rooted in older white voters and expanding the opposition’s younger and more diverse base. Yes, they enjoy more robust power than their actual support merits thanks to the distorting effects of the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandering of House and state legislative districts. But it’s not like they have a stiff wind at their backs as they seek to recover from a lost presidential election and now a doubly impeached president.
Post-Nixon Republicans Had a Movement and a Leader. Where’s That Now?
Despite his many years of service to his party and some genuine (if often “liberal”) policy accomplishments, Nixon had no clear ideology and no enthusiastic personal following. He sometimes pandered to and sometimes thwarted the steadily rising conservative movement that had achieved a false dawn under Barry Goldwater in 1964, but when Nixon crashed and burned in the Watergate scandal, conservatives (rooted in the South and West, where Republicans were in the ascendancy) were ready to assume leadership of the GOP. And their almost universally acknowledged leader, Ronald Reagan, very nearly won the presidential nomination in 1976 over Ford, and won the whole ball game four years later. Reagan’s 1984 reelection slogan was: “It’s Morning in America,” but it was morning in America for the conservative movement and its Republican Party in 1980.
There is no obvious ideological successor to the traditional Republican conservatism Trump swept away in 2016, and no leader waiting in the wings. Complex Republican taxonomies are a dime a dozen these days. No one thinks “Trumpism” is entirely dead as a popular movement and a distinct — if often incoherent — creed. But nor will Trump and his family conveniently step aside to enable the emergence of a “Trumpism Without Trump.” Yes, Republicans may achieve an artificial unity in seeking to thwart the new Biden administration. But the kind of positive momentum the GOP achieved in the 1980s and 1990s — and even in the early days of the George W. Bush administration — requires a hymnbook and a choir leader. Neither seem on the horizon right now.
Republicans May Not Be Ready to Move On
It all adds up to a real problem for the party Trump is damaging on his way out the door: Its voters may not let go of him, and he may not go away. And in the meantime, the problems Republicans worried about before the 45th president pushed them in a new (if self-destructive) direction haven’t been solved by his defeat and disgrace. If they can somehow get their act together quickly, 2022 could be a Republican comeback year in which they take control of Congress again and prepare to reconquer the White House. But the confusion in Republican ranks in Washington and increasingly around the country as to whether Trump is a victimized saint or a delusional villain does not bode well for a quick recovery from the furies he unleashed.