conservative extremism

How Much Does Trump Still Matter to the GOP?

Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Florida governor Ron DeSantis wants to be president. By Republican standards, he is a compelling candidate for the role. He signed a bill banning abortion after 15 weeks, he is forcing public-school teachers back into the closet with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and when Disney finally objected to the legislation, he cancelled the company’s special tax status. Prior to these accomplishments, he hewed closely to the party’s lax line on COVID, largely refusing to enforce mitigation measures that would have saved lives. DeSantis is extreme, but that does not make him an outlier within the GOP. He is a quintessentially Republican figure, posed for a long future in politics.

Any effort to locate the source of DeSantis’s rise and subsequent sprint to the far right will hover briefly over Donald Trump. The former president is an extremist in his own right, and there is a version of the GOP’s recent history which credits him for the party’s rightward shift. Certainly Trump expanded the party’s definition of the possible, and through him, the party managed assaults on many of its enemies: immigrants, the regulatory state, people on welfare. To assign Trump too much credit, though, is to ignore both the party’s history as well as the efforts of Republicans in the states, who have long lingered on the party’s fringes. Trump was a conduit for forces much older than his political career.

To better grasp the party’s future under figures like DeSantis, look to the past. This is not the first time the GOP has faced a takeover from the right-wing fringe. It would be a mistake, also, to assume that this is a hostile takeover — as if Trump broke down a door to allow DeSantis and Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene inside the party’s house. In truth the party has always absorbed, rather than rejected, the fringe. As Rick Perlstein and Edward Miller noted in a piece for The New Republic last year, racism and conspiracism reached deeply within the GOP, grasping at its very heart. William Buckley, credited by some for purging the conservative movement of its racist Bircher elements, called Africans “semi-savages.” Ronald Reagan called them “monkeys … uncomfortable wearing shoes” in a conversation with Richard Nixon. Reagan owed his very presidency in part to Lee Atwater’s Southern strategy, which perfected the art of the dog whistle before Trump’s blunt racism won the White House.

In recent years, abortion became a banner around which the far right’s state legislators has rallied. Lobbied by an active Christian right and affiliated anti-abortion groups, Republicans in the states have been trying to ban abortion for years. In 2011, Mississippi Republicans proposed a “personhood bill” that would’ve granted legal rights to embryos, as the New York Times reported. The same year, Ohio Republicans proposed a “Heartbeat Bill,” which would have banned abortion as soon as a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, well before most women know they are pregnant. At the time, the bills were controversial even within the right, as different factions of the anti-abortion movement disagreed on strategy and tactics. Yet these factions never differed on their ultimate goal — to ban abortion — and now that they are close to achieving their goal, it’s apparent that these earlier disagreements were superficial. Moderates weren’t rejecting extremism; they were waiting for the right moment to drop their masks.

The same dynamics apply to LGBT rights, and to immigration as well. The right never accepted same-sex marriage or the public’s growing tolerance for LGBT people. Instead, the fringe bided its time, transferring its energies temporarily into efforts to either defeat or render themselves exempt from local anti-discrimination ordinances. On immigration, the white-nationalist former congressman Steve King championed a border wall before Trump picked up the idea. Once in power, Trump quickly won over his critics within the party; now it’s difficult to find a Republican in office who’s willing to disavow the former president. This did not happen by accident. The party was a comfortable home for Trump because its fringe had always been closer to the mainstream than some conservatives wished to admit.

Now that Trump is out of office, the party has accelerated its rightward tilt. Trump may well have given Republicans permission to become more extreme, but he did not invent the party’s fringe or embrace it for the first time. The party’s future need not include him in order for the right to achieve what it dreams. This is not to say that Trump has become irrelevant. The idea that Joe Biden stole the election from him has become a foundational lie. Candidates still want his endorsement, though it’s not clear how beneficial his support might be. The true test for J.D. Vance, Mehmet Oz, and their like will be at the polls. Trump’s value as a kingmaker is yet to be seen, but he may have served his purpose regardless. He is no longer an engine for change. That designation belongs to state Republicans like DeSantis, who are steadily making the right’s vision a reality. With or without Trump, there are nightmares to come.

How Much Does Trump Still Matter to the GOP?