vision 2024

Has Trump Spoiled the GOP for More Rational Leaders?

The fiery Kristi Noem and the chill Mike Pence with the reigning demagogue Donald Trump. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

In all the will-he-or-won’t-he speculation about Donald Trump’s political future, there’s plenty of talk about who might pick up the banner of Trumpism if he drops it, but not enough discussion of whether anyone can temperamentally replace the 45th president and his rage machine.

I have previously dismissed Mike Pence’s presidential prospects on the grounds that he had fallen between two stools in following Trump in the most embarrassingly sycophantic manner for four years and then “betraying” him by refusing to execute a coup d’etat on January 6. But the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has highlighted a different point about the stylistic unsuitability of the placid Hoosier in a post-Trump environment:

[N]ot long ago, the standards for selecting a GOP nominee would have fit Pence perfectly. The party’s two nominees before Trump, Mitt Romney (2012) and John McCain (2008), didn’t set the primary electorate aflame; they mostly plodded along while their opponents flared out. …

Even if he doesn’t run in 2024, every Republican contender will be judged by whether Trump likes them and how loyal they’ve been to Trump. But just as important, he created an expectation of emotional intensity that a glass of warm milk like Pence can’t hope to satisfy.

As Waldman goes on to suggest, it’s not clear any of the likely 2024 successors to Trump can satisfy the MAGA crowds stylistically. It’s not just a matter of being far right or respectably reactionary, or “hot” as opposed to “cool” rhetorically. Pols like Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Mike Pompeo can say the “right” words with great malicious power, but none of these men are the kind of natural demagogues that get audiences lathered up and, well, marching on the Capitol to kick ass and take names — to paraphrase Mo Brooks on January 6. And perhaps Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley are opportunistic enough to go with the flow and find themselves outraged by Critical Race Theory or voting by mail, but they wouldn’t pass any authenticity test.

This is interesting in part because it sets up a contrast with Democrats, those supposedly socialistic, church-burning, baby-killing, and cop-defunding fanatics who looked at a rich assortment of 2020 presidential candidates and chose Joe Biden to follow into war.Unlike what happened to Democrats after 2016, there’s no evidence that losing in 2020 has made Republicans more pragmatic. If anything, it has done just the opposite,” observes Waldman.

And that’s the other Trump quality that may have spoiled his party for anyone else in sight: the sheer, riotous irrationality of his bet on the politics of offending and/or terrifying well over half the electorate and gambling on turnout patterns, voter suppression, and the Electoral College to win anyway. Is anyone else other than perhaps Don Jr. built that way? Possibly the culture-war fanatics Kristi Noem and Josh Hawley could descend to the occasion. Or maybe some “outsider” we haven’t considered who is out there evaluating the landscape like a wolf looking for prey could announce a 2024 exploratory committee.

But let’s don’t suppose Republicans are presently in the market for “pragmatic” leadership, or might emulate the Democrats who took a pass on Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and other rhetorically “hot” progressives to lower the temperature in 2020. Republicans are on fire, and given the odds they will make midterm gains in 2022 even if they are as irresponsible as they are in 2021, the incentives for dialing it all back may never materialize. So much for the Return to Normalcy Biden was widely thought to represent. That would take two parties to achieve.

Has Trump Spoiled the GOP for More Rational Leaders?